(Memphis) Coast Guard officer Nick Frascella says navigating the Mississippi these days is almost like trying to thread a needle blindfolded.
It’s his job to lift that blindfold ”It’s vital to the commerce of the country to get the traffic through here”.
He commands the buoy tender Kankakee working to mark the channel.
It’s like trying to paint stripes on the interstate during rush hour, "The channel is always changing whether you’ve got a shoal that steps out, or a channel that constantly changes and moves around a little bit we have to find those problem areas and mark ‘em."
A stack of colorful buoys mark the deep water where it’s safe to travel.
Huge cement blocks anchor the buoys and they weigh 1500 pounds.
But sometimes even that’s not enough to keep them in place.
Add to that the fact the river channel is always changing and you understand the job never ends.
In normal conditions the job is pretty routine ”It’s not that difficult, but it just takes some training to keep everything safe and keep that 1500 pound rock where you put it,” said John Ahlen of the U.S. Coast Guard.
But with the river at near historic lows, it’s a much more dangerous job.
”It’s a lot more difficult job, the fact that the water is a lot shallower and getting into some of those spots. We have to put a lot more buoys out there to mark that shallow water,” said Ahlen.
These men will set as many as 50 channel markers a day from Helena, Arkansas to New Madrid Missouri, about 150 river miles.
"We’re out every almost week verifying those fleet positions to make sure they’re on scene and marked properly and marking the correct water,” said Frascella.
The low water makes for faster current, and more damage to the buoys, meaning more work, and a never-ending job to keep traffic moving on the Mississippi.