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Businesses ranging from riverboat casinos to barge and railroad companies are feeling the pinch of Mississippi River flooding, although the pain is starting to ease.

But at least a few businesses, such as construction and cleaning companies, should see some economic benefit, said Bill Brockmiller, state labor market analyst in La Crosse.

"Obviously, the floods are a detriment to the overall economy," Brockmiller said. Businesses that rely on barge and railroad transportation are especially affected, he said. A 403-mile section of the Upper Mississippi River, from Minneapolis to Muscatine, Iowa, has been closed to commercial and recreational boat traffic since April 16. And railroads have had to reduce shipping on tracks along the river.

Brockmiller said he hasn't heard of any area layoffs that have resulted from the flooding and said it's too early to know whether the area's unemployment rate will be affected.

"I noticed (in news reports) that many La Crosse residents were uninsured or underinsured for floods, which is going to cut into things like savings, trips and retail spending" if they suffered flood damage, Brockmiller said. "I see that as having a potential long-term effect, as people have to make up for the damages themselves."

The flood could have negative impacts on agriculture and tourism, said James Hill, executive director of the La Crosse Area Development Corp.

Farmers could be affected if their grain can't be shipped downriver, and if they have difficulty getting fertilizer during the planting season, he said. The effect on tourism will depend on public perceptions, he said.

"In the flood events of 1993 and 1997, I think what the people in the tourism business had to fight more than anything was the perception that because flooding had been on the news quite a bit, that the whole area - from bluff to bluff - was under water," Hill said. "Then people mistakenly change travel plans, thinking incorrectly that if they come here in June and July, they won't have a place to recreate. There is some actual (flood) damage, but the facilities can recover in that time."

Brennan Marine affected

Flooding probably will cost the La Crosse-area economy millions of dollars because of layoffs, more expensive transportation methods and other costs, said Kent Pehler, vice president of operations for Brennan Marine. His La Crosse-based company services towboats and barges that come into and leave the ports of La Crosse and Lansing, Iowa.

The flooding "has had a tremendous impact on us," Pehler said of his company. About half of its approximately 30 employees have been laid off since April 16, because flooding forced the company to halt operations April 14. It continues to monitor barges tied up in the area.

Pehler said he hopes his company can resume at least limited operations on the river by the end of this week. "But it's going to depend on the rains and subsequently when the Corps of Engineers can open the locks and when the Coast Guard can open the river," he said. He hopes to resume normal operations the week of May 21.

Brennan Marine is monitoring about 90 tied-up barges in the La Crosse and Lansing areas. "There is a significant amount of empties," he said. "But there's a lot of northbound fertilizer" on barges destined for Winona, Minn., and the Twin Cities, and some of it would have been used by area farmers for spring planting, Pehler said. Meanwhile, area farmers' grain cannot be shipped down river by barge.

Cottonseed for use in dairy cattle feed, cement, coal, pig iron for foundries and aggregate for making concrete blocks are some of the products normally delivered to the La Crosse area by barge, Pehler said. Some users have temporarily switched to truck transportation of those products, which is more expensive than barge delivery, he said.

"It impacts our company, it impacts our employees, it impacts shippers," Pehler said of the flooding. "It impacts the farmers and all the other end users of the different products."

Cement company starts trucking

The Holnam Inc. cement company's distribution terminal in La Crosse usually gets most of its cement via barge from its Clarksville, Mo., manufacturing plant, said Pat Roesler, manager of terminal operations for the Michigan-based company.

"We haven't been able to unload any barges (in La Crosse) due to the high water," Roesler said. "Although we have barges at La Crosse, we can't get to them because the water's too high. So we've been making arrangements to truck product in from one of our other plants (in Mason City, Iowa), and we've also been sending some of our customers to some of our other (distribution) locations to pick up product."

Trucking cement to its La Crosse distribution terminal is more expensive than barge transportation, Roesler said. He had no estimate how much the Mississippi River flooding has cost his company.

Farmer co-op hopeful

Randy Dahlen, general manager of the Heartland Country Co-op in Westby, Wis., said he thinks the farmer co-op will be able to meet its members' fertilizer needs this spring. "We're thinking we can," he said. "It's going to depend on Mother Nature." The river needs to go down so barges can bring more fertilizer upriver, he said.

The co-op, which has facilities in Westby, Cashton and La Farge, obtains its fertilizer by truck from several locations, with much of it coming from Winona, Minn.

"We're not out of fertilizer," Dahlen said. "But some of the terminals (where the co-op gets its fertilizer) are out of certain products already," so the co-op has had to truck some fertilizer from terminals farther away than usual.

Railroads returning to normal

Service is returning to normal on the Canadian Pacific Railroad track along the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River between La Crosse and St. Paul, railroad spokeswoman Laura Baenen said Friday.

"There are places where we're running trains at decreased speeds," she said. "But we're running a normal number of trains."

"We're still not operating at normal track speed, and won't be until we can repair all the roadbed and track that needs to be addressed," said Steve Forsberg, spokesman for the Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway. Water had covered parts of its track along the east side of the Mississippi River between St. Paul and Savanna, Ill.

The Burlington Northern has been operating up to 24 trains a day on the track, compared with up to 36 trains a day before the flooding, Forsberg said. It has had to reroute some shipments because of the flooding, Forsberg said.

Since April 13, passengers who normally would board trains at the Amtrak station in La Crosse have been taking chartered buses instead because of flooding along the Mississippi River. Amtrak has been using the chartered buses for the St. Paul-to-Chicago segment of its Empire Builder route.

Bob Kamrowski, station agent in La Crosse, said Amtrak officials told him Thursday that Amtrak trains might return about May 16. "There's been a drastic drop" in the number of passengers at the La Crosse station, he said. "It's because of the inconvenience of riding the bus compared to riding the train," he said.

Electric companies affected

"We haven't had a lot of (flood) damage to our equipment," Xcel Energy spokesman Mike Herro said. "It hasn't affected any of our substations. There's been minimal effect on other electric distribution equipment, such as pad-mounted transformers" on the ground.

Herro said the company has had increased labor costs because of the need to monitor the effects of flooding and turn off electricity and natural gas service as floodwaters approached homes, boat houses and park outlets. Xcel Energy had to shut off service to about 100 electric customers and 40 gas customers in the La Crosse area because of flooding. Service is being restored as the water recedes.

For about 1 1/2 weeks, Dairyland Power Cooperative had to operate its Genoa, Wis., coal-fired power plant at less than half its normal output because large amounts of debris were clogging screens in front of pipes that bring water from the river for cooling, spokeswoman Deb Mirasola said. As a result, the co-op had to purchase some power for its member distribution cooperatives.

The Genoa plant burns coal that arrives by barge. "Obviously, our coal deliveries (at Genoa) have been halted for the time being," Mirasola said. "But we maintain an adequate inventory to prepare for unforeseen transportation issues."

Mirasola said one of Dairyland's two power plants at Alma, Wis., gets its coal by barge and the other nearby plant gets its coal by train. With the river closed to barge traffic, both Alma plants are getting their coal by train, she said.

Casino reopens

The Isle of Capri Casino & Hotel at Marquette, Iowa, reopened Wednesday after being closed since April 19 because of flooding, spokesman Steve Kolbach said. Roads leading to the business had been closed to traffic.

The casino, hotel and restaurant have more than 500 employees, and only about 60 of them were working during the shutdown, Kolbach said. The others could take vacation, a leave of absence or unemployment.

"We don't anticipate having to close down again" because of the flooding, Kolbach said. It was the first time the business has closed because of flooding. It opened in December 1994 as the Miss Marquette Riverboat Casino.

Kolbach had no estimate how much revenue the casino lost during the shutdown. The casino has started an advertising campaign to let people know it has reopened.

Clean-up firms prepare

Dan Kalmes, who owns the ServiceMaster franchises in La Crosse, Winona and Sparta, said he expects to hire four to five extra employees in La Crosse for cleaning and restoring flood-damaged homes and businesses.

"The water has to go down before we can really get into it," Kalmes said. "We've had people call in and say they want to be first on our list. We've added equipment and have employees on hold, so that when it does pop, we'll be ready to go." He expects to become busy cleaning and restoring flood-damaged homes and businesses in one to two weeks.

"If we were to start heavy in the middle of May, I would assume it probably would be well into July" before cleaning and restoration businesses finish flood-related work, Kalmes said.

Steve can be reached at scahalan@lacrossetribune.com and at (608) 791-8229.

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