Floods snarl commerce by highway, river, rail

Tourism, agriculture, even barge traffic suffer

June 18, 2008|By David Greising and E.A. Torriero

FORT MADISON, Iowa - If roads, rivers and railroad tracks are the arteries of commerce, then the flooding in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin add up to a heart attack to the nation's midsection.

The closure of bridges along a 300-mile stretch of the Mississippi River yesterday was just the latest blow in a weeklong run of road closures, bridge shutdowns, levee breaks and washouts that are scrambling traffic, disrupting distribution plans, forcing businesses to close operations and hurting the farm economy.

Tom Miller, a truck driver for 30 years, said he cannot recall a more chaotic few days.

The load of Procter & Gamble Co. merchandise Miller had in his truck at the Flying J truck stop in St. Francisville, Mo., was supposed to have been shipped Saturday night, but wasn't ready until Tuesday morning. Over the weekend, when one load didn't arrive in time, Miller improvised and picked up another.

"Loads are coming in late. Drivers can't get where they're supposed to be," Miller said. "The road closures eat up time. They eat up fuel."

In Iowa, so far the hardest-hit state, agricultural losses from the June flooding are expected to reach $1 billion. Property losses in Cedar Rapids alone - where a broken levee took out 400 blocks of the city's downtown - are expected to reach $750 million. The city's Chamber of Commerce estimates that rebuilding could cost nearly $3 billion.

Some of the biggest losses may come from disruptions in business activity. Quaker Oats Co. had to shut down its historic Cap'n Crunch factory in Cedar Rapids. Tyson Foods and Cargill had to close poultry processing plants, and Deere & Co. had to shutter its Waterloo, Iowa, manufacturing plant

In Fort Madison, Iowa, along the Mississippi, the city's historic waterfront is under water. A July bass fishing tournament that was expected to bring in as much as $6 million in revenue was canceled. And residents fear the Mississippi Queen will skip at least one scheduled docking this summer.

"That kind of money - that goes 100 percent into our local economy," said Brad Wiggins, owner of Old Brewery Antiques, just across busy U.S. 61 from the rising Mississippi River. "That money goes to gas stations, to food stores, to shops and hotels. We can put that in the bank."

Losses from business disruptions are hard to calculate. Based on models developed from tallies of previous floods, including 1993, Ball State University economist Michael Hicks predicts $2.7 billion in crop damages for Iowa.

All forms of transportation are taking a hit. With railroad traffic snarled all across Iowa, Merrill Lynch & Co. predicted that disruptions would cost just one railway, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, $12 million this week.

River traffic, which carries 60 percent of the nation's agricultural production, was stymied, too. Closed locks along the Mississippi have brought river travel to a standstill, as authorities banned movement of nonessential traffic.

Alter Barge Line of Bettendorf, Iowa, had a least 100 barges and two large boats idled. Losses are now $25,000 a day but could mount to $40,000 per day as the system remains clogged, perhaps for the next three weeks. The barge company estimates the entire industry could lose $1 million a day until traffic returns to normal.

But there might be an upside, too. Rebuilding after the floods could boost economic activity, as it did in Iowa after the 1993 flood, raising economic activity by nearly 3 percent that year.

"There will be ... additional business opportunities in flood repair and things to offset some of the commerce losses," Hicks said.

David Greising and E.A. Torriero write for the Chicago Tribune

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