GRANITE CITY, Ill. - Crews scrambled to make repairs Wednesday near the busiest Mississippi River lock shut down because of damage blamed partly on the summer drought, snarling hundreds of barges and tugboats in a backlog that was growing worse by the hour.
Workers closed Lock 27 just north of St. Louis last Saturday after discovering that a protection cell - a vertical, rock-filled steel cylinder against which barges rub to help align them for proper entry into the lock - had split open, spilling into the channel tons of the rock that ultimately obstructed passage.
That damage was on an unarmored section of the protection cell that the barges don't typically make contact with because that portion often is 15 to 20 feet under water. But that part of the structure stands exposed because the river's level has been lowered dramatically by the nation's worst drought in decades, officials said.
The lingering drought also has narrowed the Mississippi - the nation's chief highway for barge traffic, leaving towboat pilots struggling to find a safe place to park their barges river as they wait out the repairs that Army Corps spokesman Mike Petersen said could be completed as early as Thursday.
As of Wednesday morning, nearly five dozen tugboats and more than 400 barges - carrying enough cargo to fill 2,400 railcars or 23,600 large tractor-trailers - were caught up in the logjam, a Coast Guard spokesman in St. Louis said.
As of 9 a.m. Wednesday, the number of vessels forced to park there spiked by one-third over the previous 24 hours while there was a doubling of the number of barges, hauling everything from grains to coal, fertilizer and construction materials, Lt. Colin Fogarty said.