Like the very nature of water, the trickle-down effects of the historic floodingare leaving no corner untouched. Retail gasoline prices, already at two-year highs, and food prices could rise in the region because of supply disruptions. Tens of thousands of people are unemployed, shut out of jobs at establishments that are literally under water. State and local government coffers, strained because of the economic downturn, may lose many millions of dollars in revenue from tourism and taxes.
In about a dozen interviews, economists, farmers and industry officials said they expected hundreds of millions of dollars in damages including crop and infrastructure destruction in communities along the 740 miles of river that meanders from Memphis to New Orleans. But while the final bill has yet to be determined, the costs are already being felt.
In Yazoo County, Miss., John Phillips, a 61-year-old farmer, said thousands of acres of his cotton and corn crops had been destroyed. “In our area in the south delta, it is a widespread and very economically devastating disaster,” he said in a telephone interview, as he tried to run a pump. He said his annual revenue would be reduced by 40 percent because it was too late to replant.
In Louisiana, oyster beds have been flushed with fresh water from the river after spillways were opened. Already, the state’s crucial seafood industry had been reeling from the BP oil spill.
“Oysters are getting crucified,” said Harlon H. Pearce Jr., the executive director of Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. “This water hit at the absolute worst time.”
Along the river, barge operators are weathering the economic turbulence. It costs an operator about $10,000 a day when there is a delay with a tow, which helps the unwieldy barges, sometimes up to 45 of them tied together, navigate.
“One barge has the capacity of 16 rail cars or 70 trucks,” said Anne D. Burns, a spokeswoman at American Waterways Operators. The river’s barge traffic, Ms. Burns added, “is one of the significant building blocks of our economy.”
With the recent flooding, barges are running lighter loads and traveling during the day because navigation markers are submerged. Delays can have ripple effects throughout the economy, like slower coal deliveries to utilities, where costs can be passed on to consumers, or disruptions to the nation’s grain exports that travel down the river, she added.
“All those things are slowing down the delivery of these commodities,” Ms. Burns said.
The flooding has affected other states, including Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri. In addition to farming, businesses including catfish farms, hunting and fishing tourism, and casinos up and down the river have been affected.
About 100,000 acres of croplands, some planted with sugar cane and rice, flooded over the weekend in the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana when the Morganza spillway was opened, but the damage assessment has not been completed, said an Army Corps economist, Lee Robinson.
The economic hardships facing the affected areas would be traumatic to residents at any time, but they are also taking place when the nation is trying to recover from the 2008 financial crisis.