The first signs that Captain Cory F. Heitmeier was in for an unsettling day's work on the Mississippi came before he even boarded a boat on May 17. At the dock where the river pilot waited to catch a crewboat to a Panamanian-flagged freighter, a paved driveway was already covered with floodwater. Gravel had been poured on top to make a makeshift road.
Heitmeier and his fellow pilots help guide the 448 million tons of cargo that pass through the mouth of the Mississippi each year. On the best of days, the job is tricky. The fourth-longest river on the planet is full of shifting currents, submerged hazards, and constant traffic. As rain and snow flowed down from the north, the river at New Orleans crested the day before Heitmeier met the freighter. His job had become treacherous. "On the river, if you screw up, someone can get killed or you can wipe out an entire population," he says.
Historic flooding has limited the amount of freight moving along the Mississippi. The river and its connecting waterways are home to 20,500 barges, according to a 2010 report by Informa Economics, a Memphis research firm. Much of the rest of the traffic on the river comes from tankers and cargo ships moving from the Gulf of Mexico and out to the rest of the world. Cargo passing through the Port of New Orleans, part of the stretch of river Heitmeier works, accounts for about $37 billion of national economic output every year, says Chris Bonura, a port spokesperson. About 60 percent of all U.S. grain exports are shipped on the Mississippi through the Port of New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana, according to the U.S. National Park Service.
Water this high breaks any workaday routine on the river. Normally, a towboat might push 30 to 40 barges up the river at a time, with each weighing from 1,200 to 1,500 tons, says Steve Jones, navigation manager for the Army Corps of Engineers' Mississippi Valley Division. Conditions have cut that number to about 20 barges. The risks to ships on what river pilots call the "Old Girl" are both financial and human. Tankers carry everything from oil to toxic chemicals. A spill could be catastrophic to crews and towns. A ship breaking into levees could cause disastrous flooding. "Some of these things are floating bo—," Heitmeier says, stopping short of the word bombs. "I don't even like to think of it."
Pilots know every nook and cranny of the river. To get his license Heitmeier, a 10-year veteran, had to draw in detail the 147 miles (237 kilometers) of the river he would be working on. The ship he pilots today is the Federal Baffin, a bulk carrier longer than two football fields that has taken a load of potash fertilizer on a 22-day journey from Russia. The freighter, equipped with four cranes and a helicopter pad, will pick up a load of gravel for a 31-day sail to Japan. The crewboat carrying Heitmeier nuzzles up to what looks, up close, like the side of a steel building. Heitmeier waits for the crewboat to rise on a wave before hopping onto a metal staircase hanging over the ship's side. Wearing khaki pants and a blue madras button-down Brooks Brothers shirt, the 37-year-old looks like a banker on casual Friday. He will guide the ship from its anchorage and navigate it four miles upriver, where it will be tied to buoys and unloaded. "This is one of the most dangerous things we do," he says. Especially now. "Just how high the damned thing is. How fast it's moving."
Once on the bridge, Heitmeier is in charge—even the ship's captain will answer to him. Communication will be tricky. The captain, a Chinese national, speaks broken English. The chief mate below, who coordinates the anchors and other rigging, speaks Russian. Heitmeier already anticipates that the commands "starboard 10" (turn right 10 degrees) and "stop engine" will be misunderstood. He sets up a laptop with satellite navigation software that shows a detailed schematic of the river and traffic. From the bridge, Heitmeier is higher than the treeline on either side of the river, which laps mere feet from the top of the levees. Dozens of barges are tied down on both banks.
Boats must take water into their hulls as ballast so they can sit lower in the river to clear bridges, making them even slower to respond to rudder controls. Ships going upriver cruise more slowly against the current even as they use more power to compensate, leaving less power for emergency maneuvers. "With the river like this, you have to be on top of it," Heitmeier says. "One minor little thing that you overlook can cause everything to go wrong."
Once under way, it isn't long before the language barrier causes problems. Nearing a turn, Heitmeier calls out "hard to starboard" for a right turn. The second mate repeats the command, yet the quartermaster turns the rudder wheel left. Seeing the error on a compass above, Heitmeier commands "midship," asking for the rudder to be centered. Once again, the quartermaster turns the wheel hard left to the port side of the ship.
Heitmeier snaps his fingers as he barks to the captain to boost the ship's power to "sea speed," used on the ocean yet normally held in reserve on the river. The captain is slow to respond, prompting Heitmeier to snap his fingers louder. "Sea speed, captain. Emergency sea speed, now." The extra power pushes the ship back onto course and away from a line of barges tied to a dock. Heitmeier orders the quartermaster replaced. "That's only the second time in my career that I've had to order the quartermaster changed," he says. Proof this is no ordinary week on the Mississippi.
The bottom line: Delivery times for shipments of grain and other valuable commodities are slowing as floods raise the level of the Mississippi.