By Greg Hilburn
The Butcher, a cutterhead dredge that can chew through silt like a beaver through a weeping willow, is on the way to clear the clogged channel leading into the Lake Providence Port harbor.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., both said they received commitments from the Army Corps of Engineers that the Dredge Butcher will be en route to the port before the end of the week.
"They call it the Butcher, but we don't care what it's called as long as it gets the jobs done," Alexander said. "We hope its arrival will prevent a serious interruption of the summer harvest."
As many as 24 million bushels of soybeans and corn are expected to be shipped by barges from the port if its channel is dredged.
Low Mississippi River levels have landlocked the port, clogging the channel to its harbor and preventing barge traffic from coming in and out.
Farmers and agriculture officials said the region doesn't have the truck or rail capacity to transport the coming crops.
"It's so important to get this bumper crop to market for our country and the world," said Landrieu, who spoke directly to Gen. John Peabody, commander of the corps' Mississippi Valley Division. "This is an urgent need for our farmers, but the bigger picture is the supply we get to the market will help everybody."
A mound of sand at the confluence of the channel leading into the port harbor and a drainage canal has left just 5 feet of clearance to reach the river, not enough for barges loaded with grain.
The corps has twice sent a dredge to the port this summer but ran out of money before it could clear the hump clogging the channel. The previous efforts were made with dustpan dredges, which weren't adequate to clear the chute.
Cutterhead dredges have blades that swing from side to side to clear the way.
"We are very pleased with the attention and rapid response of Gen. Peabody and the Corps of Engineers in dealing with this critical situation," said Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, who toured the port Monday.
The Butcher, which is owned by Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel and contracted by the corps, will leave the Port of Rosedale before the end of the week en route to Lake Providence. Once there, the dredge will likely take about 20 days to clear the channel and harbor.
"It's great news for the port and the whole region," Lake Providence Port Director Wyly Gilfoil said. "It took everybody working together to make this happen."
State Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, who joined Strain in Lake Providence Monday, called the Lake Providence Port "a critical artery to transport our crops to the rest of the country and the world. I'm thrilled," Thompson said.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter stressed the importance of keeping the Mississippi River navigation operable.
"The Mississippi River is the most productive river transportation system in America, and ensuring that cargo can continue to move through the river is vital for Louisiana and national commerce," Vitter said. "Many Louisiana farmers and businesses rely on the Mississippi River to transport goods to export markets, and it is the responsibility of the corps to ensure that the ports are maintained at proper levels."