A tow barge struck the Gov. Nicholls Street wharf in New Orleans last week, damaging a number of pilings. No injuries or spills were reported as a result of the incident, according to the New Orleans Police Department.
The incident served to highlight the dangers that vessel operators face when the Mississippi River experiences high water levels. Every year, the lower Mississippi River hits higher levels as snow melt and rainwater from upstream bottleneck on their way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Topping the list of hazards during these high river stages are debris and strong currents that makes it difficult to pilot upstream and difficult to stop when piloting downstream.
The Waterway Action Plan lays out navigation restrictions that are put into effect during high river stages. This plan is a joint effort of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Corps of Engineers, and senior members of the towing industry.
Steps that can be taken to minimize the dangers include restricting barge traffic to daylight hours, reducing barge tow sizes, and requiring additional communication between vessels navigating the river.
When swift current conditions are present, “downstreaming” is one maneuver that has been seen to result in serious accidents, including sinkings and fatalities.
Downstreaming is a common maneuver performed by towboat operators to land on a barge, dock or terminal. It involves positioning the boat above the fleet, moving downstream with the current to land at the desired location. It is typically a safe, routine procedure; however, when the Lower Mississippi River is in a high water stage and experiencing high current conditions, it can lead to accidents that happen with surprising quickness.
Such an incident occurred in 2015, when the towboat Miss Natalie became pinned against the bow of a barge and sank. One crewmember drowned in the vessel. The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident and reported that the captain’s decision to downstream in high current conditions were the probable cause of the accident.
The New Orleans maritime lawyers at The Lambert Firm represent clients in all types of vessel accidents, including those that occur on inland waterways such as the Mississippi River. If you are a river worker who was injured in an accident, contact us today to learn more about your legal rights.