4 Dozen Ships Wait for Houston Channel to Reopen

A crane pulls a damaged electrical tower upright in the Houston Ship Channel Monday, Oct. 4, 2010 in Baytown, Texas. Barges struck the tower Sunday shutting down a key stretch of the channel and potentially causing a nearly $1 billion economic loss. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan
It will take three days to clear a traffic jam of four dozen ships after an electrical tower teetering over the Houston Ship Channel is removed and the crucial waterway reopens late Tuesday, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Crews assisted by "Big John," one of the largest cranes in the country, are working to cut 14 power lines supported by the tower and remove the structure so ship traffic can resume through the four-mile stretch. It has been closed since early Sunday, Coast Guard Petty Officer Richard Brahm said.

As of Tuesday morning, 28 inbound ships and 20 outbound were waiting for the channel to reopen.

The channel closed at 6 a.m. Sunday after a tug pushing three barges hit the tower, leaving it leaning precariously over the waterway that serves as a main artery to the Port of Houston. The port is one of the busiest in the U.S., leading in foreign waterborne tonnage and imports and ranking second in U.S. export tonnage and total tonnage.

The Coast Guard estimates every day the channel is closed costs about $320 million, including jobs associated with the waterway.

Ships waiting to pass are unable to deliver or receive goods, also part of the cost, which could rise to $1 billion by the time the channel reopens sometime after 5 p.m. Tuesday, Brahm said.

Brahm likened the channel to a parking lot, explaining that if there are no open spots ships cannot be allowed in. So the first priority, once the area reopens, will be to allow vessels to leave. Once that happens, operators will prioritize which ships need to enter based on the needs of the different facilities.