Mary Foster and Alan Sayre / Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- Travis Morace has been running boats onthe Mississippi for two decades, witnessing all of the mightyriver's many moods. He's seen it calm and smooth as a newly pavedroad and endured jarring rides filled with treacherous twists andbumps.
But even experienced river pilots have never seen anything likethe roiling current now racing to the Gulf of Mexico. Since springfloods pushed the Mississippi to historic heights, America'sbusiest inland waterway has become one of its most challenging tonavigate.
'If you're not scared of it, you should be, because it has alot of ways of hurting you,' Morace said this week as he slowlynudged his tugboat, the Bettye M. Jenkins, along the river banknear Vidalia, La.
The high water brings with it a host of hazards. Debris iseverywhere, and the unusually swift current makes it difficult forpilots to go upstream. Good luck stopping if you're headeddownstream. For those who make their living on the water, the riveris a respected adversary in the best of times. Now it just plainfrightens them.
On Friday, the Mississippi at Vidalia looked more like a stormyocean than a river. Whitecaps frothed under the bridge thatconnects the city to Natchez, Miss., and whirlpools churned acrossthe channel.
In many places, obstacles were hiding just beneath the surface.
Some trees in Natchez were nearly submerged. A basketball hoopprotruded about 2 feet above the water at a flooded-out court.
The current was filled with flotsam of every sort, includingwhole trees and long, green ribbons of vegetation. A nearbyalligator struggled against the water's pull, finally findingrefuge on the porch of a building partly concealed by the risingwater.
The high water and rapid current caused several grain barges tobreak loose from a towboat Friday and three barges of corn sank,the towboat's owner said. No one was hurt.
The barges went down near Baton Rouge, prompting the Coast Guardto close a five-mile stretch of the river. Officials did not knowwhen it would reopen.
Earlier in the week, the Coast Guard briefly closed a 15-milespan of the river near Natchez because of the current and concernsthat the wakes from passing vessels would put pressure onfloodwalls protecting communities. The wakes were also washingfloodwater into some businesses.
Although the river was soon reopened near Natchez, barge and tugtraffic is still being tightly regulated.
The Coast Guard normally asks vessels to maintain a minimumspeed of 3 mph going upstream. But these days, they can go onlyabout 1 mph to avoid generating wakes. When heading south, manyhave trouble stopping in the fast current.
'You ask me, they should close it down altogether,' said JerryBatson, captain of the tug Gladys Batson. 'It's awful risky forany vessel.'
On Wednesday, Batson watched as a boat pushing two emptychemical barges stalled while trying to pass under theVidalia-Natchez bridge.
'It almost hit the bridge backing up,' he said.
Before the river began to flood, the Gladys Batson routinelypushed four, 200-foot barges at a time. But the current now makesit hard to steer or to move that much cargo.
Farther south in Louisiana, the high water also presents achallenge to pilots who guide oceangoing vessels into ports fromNew Orleans to Baton Rouge.
Michael Lorino, head of the Associated Branch Pilots, saidpilots have to maneuver through tricky currents made worse by theriver's many bends, and they must stay away from sandbars built bythe huge amount of silt carried down during high-water season,usually in the spring.
They have to learn, and re-learn, the river every day, all whiledodging towboats, cruise liners, ferries and massive grain andchemical ships.
Bill Wilson, whose company carries about 300,000 passengers ayear on its Natchez steamboat in New Orleans, said his captainshave a good relationship with river pilots and work together tostay safe, especially when the water is high.
'We pretty much stay out their way. They're the big guys,'said Wilson, vice president and general manager of the New OrleansSteamboat Co.
Many ships entering the river are bound for the Port of SouthLouisiana, which lines both sides of the Mississippi north of NewOrleans. It's the nation's largest port in terms of tonnage, and ithandles more than half of American grain exports.
Barges travel from farm country down the Missouri, Ohio andMississippi rivers. When they get to the port, the crops are putaboard massive grain carriers for shipment overseas. Or the grainis put into tall elevators to await later shipment.
The port handles about 60,000 barges a year, along with 4,500 to5,000 deep-draft vessels.
That kind of commercial traffic means closing the river iscostly. Huge ships waiting to take on cargo can run up expenses of$40,000 a day. Port officials say the total cost of a single day'sclosing can top $300 million.
When the water began to climb, the shipping industry was one ofthe biggest proponents of opening spillways to divert excess waterfrom the Mississippi. The Army Corps of Engineers first opened theBonnet Carre spillway north of New Orleans, then the Morganzaspillway north of Baton Rouge.
Those actions helped keep ports open and eased pressure on thelevees protecting Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Ports downstream are still open until the surge of waterarrives. But in Vidalia, about 140 miles upriver from New Orleans,a lot of business has come to a halt. The river crested in thatarea Friday at nearly 14 feet above flood stage, a level that waslower than first predicted but about three feet higher than the1937 record.
Forecasters said it could be days before the water begins torecede.
Carla Jenkins, whose family has been in the towing business forgenerations, said her boats stopped accepting work orders Tuesday.
And at a spot where barges are usually tied up, brown river watersweeps over three buoys in the river. The barges are gone.
'I told everyone to come and get them,' she said. 'I couldn'tguarantee they would be safe now. I've never seen anything likethis and never hope to again.'
Her offices, built between the river and the levee and standingatop 10-foot pilings, now have several feet of water in them.
The river has torn off the steps and swept away the wheelchairramp. Acres of land where she stores limestone gravel are nowbeneath as much as 30 feet of water. She estimates she's losing$70,000 to $80,000 a week in towing alone -- in addition to lossesfrom the gravel business.
For a small operator like Batson, the flood could be financiallydevastating, but he insists he won't venture onto the Mississippiuntil it quiets down.
'You couldn't whip me and make me go out there now,' he said.