Safety on river paramount in summer

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 30, 2002


LAPLACE – Local resident Larry Marse knows the Mississippi River both personally and professionally. For five years he made his living on the mighty river working on barges and in the offices of a local maritime company – in 1999 he could have died in it.

His most intimate moment with the mighty Mississippi was in 1999 when, while working on a barge, he slipped, lost his footing and fell into the quickly moving current.

“Before I popped up and realized what was going on, I had drifted about 400 feet downriver,” Marse said. “It was in a matter of minutes.”

Marse, who currently works for a company located near the river, was pulled to safety by fellow workers, but the memory of the waterway’s power has stayed with him.

“There are whirlpools and undertows,” Marse said. “We’ve seen buoys that have come loose, went underwater and popped back up way down the river. It fluctuates – it’s worse when the river is higher.”

Although Marse cannot recall seeing any fatalities or serious injuries around the industrial area where he works, he knows the potential is there.

“Recently, we called the cops because some of these kids were playing in the water in an unsafe area around some barges,” Marse said. “Someone told the kids to leave and they started crying wolf, saying ‘help me!'”

According to Marse, since school ended for the summer there has been an increase in the number of children walking and playing around the river’s edge.

“Stuff falls into the river,” Marse said. “Boats sink. Barges sink. Stuff falls off scrap barges. It’s all up and down the river.”

Mitch Smith, operations director at the Port of Louisiana’s Harbor Services, said children should look for a swimming pool to beat the summer heat, rather than braving the river’s currents.

“There is an extremely swift current (in the river),” Smith said. “Currents as high as nine knots or about 10 mph.”

But the debris and the currents are not the only dangers that children playing in the river face, Smith said.

“Vessel traffic creates a wave action and there’s a suction effect from larger vessels that pulls objects from the side of the river to the middle,” Smith said.

The combination of currents, undertow, fluctuating depths, as well as the hazards created by industrial traffic makes the river highly unstable and often unsafe.

“The dangers are just unspeakable,” Smith said. “This river is extremely dangerous and unforgiving. Anytime we observe someone swimming in the river, we advise against it.”

Corporal Todd Sparks of the Marine Department at St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office said his department has seen no swimming-related drownings in the waterways they service in the last two years but agreed that the potential for serious, if not fatal, accidents is greater in the Mississippi River, especially during the summer months.

The department patrols waterways such as Lake Pontchartrain and the Bonnet Carre Spillway, but its officers do not regularly service the Mississippi River, which is primarily under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard. The guard operates an Internet Web site ( 8.htm) that is updated regularly to provide information about river depths and currents.