Monica Hernandez / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS – Hundreds of barges are pushed through the Mississippi River every day, but with the quickening of the current as the river rises, that task is becoming more difficult.
“The challenge is, the ships coming down river go a lot faster and it's harder to slow down when you have all that water pushing you,” said Chief Petty Officer John Edwards of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Officials said one of their main concerns as the river swells is that the current could push barges into the levees.
"I think you all remember, in the aftermath of Katrina, how damaging those barges were to the levees,” said Susan Maclay, president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority West.
The river was hovering around flood stage Wednesday in New Orleans, and it's expected to rise 2.5 more feet in less than two weeks if the Morganza Spillway is not opened.
With an anticipated crest at 19.5 feet in New Orleans, there's the potential for a ship to lose control and cause major problems.
"If that was to occur with this historic level of river, the ship would be at the top of the levee and it would take very little for that ship to punch a hole in the levee,” said Capt. Michael Rooney, president of New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association.
Runaway ships are a big concern for the city's water treatment plant. Officials with the Sewerage & Water Board have asked the Coast Guard to keep an eye on the area to make sure barges don't run into the plant's pipes.
“We can't afford to have barges running loose breaking levees. That's unacceptable now,” said City Council President Jackie Clarkson. “We had to tolerate barges going astray in Katrina, in Gustav, in Rita, and we won't tolerate it anymore. We made laws, we're going to sink them, and we should.”
There are measures in place to guard against runaway ships. The Coast Guard has put new restrictions on how far away ships can be from levees and when they can move through the water.
But as the river swells, the concerns continue.
"Barges are accustomed to pushing onto a batture, but with the high river, now what they're pushing onto is levee,” said Tim Doody of the Southeast LA Flood Protection Authority East. “The levees are designed to handle the river. They're not designed to handle barge impacts and barge loading."