THE tug "Mary Burke" eases slowly away from its moorings, a 1,350-horsepower engine pushing against the churning waters of the Mississippi.
Hundreds of idled barges on both sides of the swollen river here symbolize an economy and region on hold as the flood of the century continues.
Standing on the bridge of the Mary Burke, Bob Alfultis, manager of Eagle Fleet Service, says, "We have been out of commission so long I couldn't estimate how much money we are losing."
At mid-channel, and as far as the eye can see up and down the swollen brown river, the Mary Burke is the only boat. "Usually we're handling about 1,200 barges a month," says Mike Brinkman, the captain of the Mary Burke.
As the major force in the United States for shipping industrial commodities in bulk, such as grains and petroleum products, the 2,348-mile long Mississippi is closely linked with all other modes of transportation. When traffic on the river stopped, trucking, trains, and planes took a staggering tumble too.
In the face of such massive flooding, as well as damage to bridges, roads, and railroads, the transportation network has not experienced much conversion, that is, barge cargo has not moved to railroad and trucking.
"When the industry is tied up for weeks," says Lonnie Haefner, a professor of civil engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, "there is an economic impact multiplier. I estimate there is a $36-million to $42-million amount of damage done to the system and the secondary system."
In addition, flooding in the Midwest has been so extensive and lasted for so long that supplies in storage for companies such as utilities, food processors, and manufacturers of all kinds, are running low.
In 1990, more than 460 million tons of goods were shipped on the river between Minnesota and New Orleans. Last year 500 million tons traveled by barge. Shipping experts say that the amount of cargo transported over the river has doubled about every decade since 1920.
"Compared to other modes of transportation, barges are the least expensive," Mr. Alfultis says. One barge can transport the contents of 60 trucks for about one tenth the cost.
The economic disruption caused by the flooding may include a potentially significant and historic change underwater.
"What may be happening," Dr. Haefner says, "is that the river is creating a new and unknown channel. Until the waters begin to recede, and a bottom chart analysis is done, we won't know. It could be late August before this is done."
A change in the shape of the river bottom would effect river travel. Fleets of barges are often tied together three wide and 15 deep.
"It can take a fleet two miles to turn or stop," Haefner says, "so adequate depth has to be known."
Another unknown factor introduced by the flooding is the potential for "deadmen" to pull loose and set barges adrift. "Deadmen" are the moorings to which fleets of barges are tied at the river's edge.
"Because of the flooding," Alfultis says, "the deadmen have been underwater for up to three weeks and could be saturated. There is real potential for fleet breakaway."
When this happens the US Coast Guard can fine fleet operators up to $1,000 a barge. Currently, Eagle Fleet Service has 109 barges tied up at moorings. Each day the company charges customers $18 to hold a barge.
While traffic on the river continues to be forbidden, Alfultis says the flooding could not have come at a worse time. "Before the flooding everybody in the barge business had been working with critical numbers," he says. "The industry was in a depressed state because of the recession. Now I'm not so sure everyone can survive the flooding."
Eagle Fleet, owned by a Japanese company, terminated a lease on one tug and laid off a crew of three because of the flooding.
Haefner remembers the days when there were as many as 40 fleet operators in St. Louis.
"Now there are about 20 functional barge lines, many with marginal earnings. Barge companies that are highly leveraged are in deep trouble," he says.
How well the barge shipping industry survives the flood depends on several factors, Haefner says. "What aid will Congress and President Clinton offer to the industry, and will it be loans or grants?" he asks.
In order to rebuild, Haefner suggests the condition in the industry "be treated like a crisis in a developing country." He proposes that some kind of a "war bond scenario" could help raise funds.
Also he thinks the rationale behind a federal energy tax needs to be addressed again. Fuel consumption on a small diesel tug like the Mary Burke can reach 40 gallons an hour.
Asked what the first week might be like when the US Coast Guard again authorizes travel on the river, Alfultis says: "We're all scared to even think about it."
Following the great flood of 1973, when the Coast Guard finally approved travel on the river again, restrictions helped keep order.
Out on the river, Captain Brinkman moves the tug to the east side where docks, buildings, and grain loading machinery are underwater. The current, moving now at an estimated speed of 10 to 15 knots, normally flows at 7 to 8 knots.
On the west side of the river, where the Mary Burke docks, a cement retaining wall holding back the water was built in the late 1950s by the city. The crest of the river has stopped only about five feet shy of the top, a level never before reached during a flood in St. Louis.