The Ponchartrain, one of several dredges contracted by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, has completed two weeks of work to improve the harbor along the New Madrid riverfront. Its next stop is the New Madrid County Port Authority's slack water harbor for six days of maintenance.
The barge work was a welcomed sight for John Hartness, manager for the Cargill Grain Elevator along the New Madrid harbor.
"I'm just as tickled as I can be that they dredged," said Hartness. "We had very low water out here; it was getting to a point where we couldn't fully load out barges."
Mike Latiolais, captain of the Ponchartrain, oversees the work on the dredge. Thirty years ago he began as a deckhand on a boat on the river and discovered the work suited him. The Lafayette, La., resident worked his way up and is now responsible for the maintenance of equipment and crew.
The biggest challenges are those presented by the ever-changing river and what it drops along the bottom. It is the job of the dredge captain and his crew to ensure the barges and boats can travel the Mississippi River in high water and low.
The Corps of Engineers, which is mandated by Congress with maintenance of river channels throughout the United States, continually monitors the riverways and harbors. When a problem is reported in the river channel or prior to maintenance, the Corps conducts soundings and uses a Global Positioning System to determine depth. The information is used to create a map which is turned over to the captain and the dredge operators.
Working from the Corp's detailed drawing, Latiolais and his crew anchor their dredge and begin work to make the desired changes in depth.
A hydraulic head with blades is dropped down into the water. Powered by a 4,000 horsepower engine, it cuts a six-foot swath across the bottom.
The dredge operator, watching his computer screen and the river from a small room high atop the Ponchartrain, sweeps the boat back and forth. After the dredge's cutterhead breaks up the bottom materials then "like a big vacuum cleaner it sucks up whatever is around," explained the captain.
The material is moved through large tubes to be pushed out into the flow of the river current. "We can move some 1,200 to 1,300 cubic yards of dirt an hour," said Latiolais. That, he estimates, is enough to fill 48 large river barges every day.
An on-board computer system monitors the boat's position at all times, tracking the dredge's every movement, how wide the dredge works and the depth.
Last dredged in the early 1980s, the New Madrid harbor required a 300-foot wide sweep by the dredge operator as it moves along the channel. The move to the county port will prompt changes in maneuvers with a much smaller 225-foot wide cut made.
Monitoring the work is Owen Schulf, chief inspector with the Corps of Engineers. Schulf remains aboard the Ponchartrain much of the time, tracking the crew's work, monitoring safety and watching expenses.
While not a member of the crew, it is obvious his respect for their work on the Corps' behalf. "This is one of the best crews I have worked with," said Schulf, who has been with the Corps since 1972.
Schulf and Latiolais agreed technology is impacting their jobs.
"Just as technology is bringing changes in other fields, it has brought changes in this field as well," said Schulf. "It has taken the guess work out and made dredging more accurate."
But added the captain, a good dredge operator still must have a "feel" for the equipment and the river. Watching the computer screen is just part of the job. The dredge operator must also watch the river and monitor the machinery. After all, you never know what you might dredge up.
The dredge operation in the New Madrid harbor brought up gravel, trees and metal cables from the river bottom. There have been other occasions when the dredge has had to stop operation to untangle boat motors, fiberglass and even bicycles and grocery carts. Latiolais and Schulf agreed the most unusual thing they have seen a dredge suck up was a job where a car became entangled in the equipment.
But mostly it is silt which flows through the tubes, ranging out from the Ponchartrain. The crew is capable of dispersing the silt more than two miles from the cutterhead, dropping it into the river's current or on the riverbank, if needed.
Prior to coming to New Madrid, the Ponchartrain's crew moved 1,800,000 cubic yards of dirt on its last job. Yet despite their work, today and tomorrow, it will be a job they will face again.
"It's the river that brings the silt and sand. It is Mother Nature who is to blame," said Schulf. "But you have to dredge the Mississippi to keep industry going, the barges moving and the jobs flowing."