River reopens though some vessel traffic limited

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Mississippi River reopened Friday to shipping from Baton Rouge to its mouth after being closed four days earlier as Hurricane Isaac approached.

The Coast Guard was limiting some traffic as a backlog of vessels —including a cruise ship — waited to enter the river about 90 miles southeast of New Orleans. The 2,052-passenger Carnival Elation arrived at the port Friday afternoon.

Barges had been stranded on the river bank in places because of Isaac's storm surge, which plowed up the river and effectively caused the Mississippi to flow backward until winds shifted to the north and pushed water back into the Gulf of Mexico, authorities said.

Port terminals will be bustling for the next few days as terminal operators handle a backlog of vessels, said Gary LaGrange, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans. A total of 23 ships are scheduled to call on port docks by Tuesday. Included are 12 container vessels, nine break-bulk cargo vessels, and two cruise ships, he said.

The river between Baton Rouge and its mouth is lined with refineries, chemical plants and a massive grain port. Low water caused by drought in the Midwest has caused periodic closings farther upriver — particularly in Mississippi and the Memphis, Tenn., area — because of silting and sandbar hazards.

The river is much deeper from Baton Rouge to its mouth though officials had been concerned that salt water from the Gulf was intruding northward because of the river's low flow.

A massive underwater barrier was built to keep the heavier salt water at the bottom and away from drinking water intakes south of New Orleans.

Farther upriver, dredges were working to clear sandbars and permit barge traffic to pass.

Isaac's rains upriver could bring some relief for the low water problems, though forecasters expect more normal river levels won't return until October.

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