Shipping delays feared across US as crack shutters vital Memphis bridge. What to know

The Hernando DeSoto Bridge over the Mississippi River is indefinitely closed after a “significant fracture” was discovered in a steel beam during a routine inspection.

The closure of vital bridge that runs over the Mississippi River and connects Tennessee and Arkansas is sparking concerns about potential shipping delays across the country.

A large crack on the Interstate 40 Hernando DeSoto Bridge was discovered during a routine inspection on Tuesday, according to the Arkansas Department of Transportation.

The bridge will remain closed to interstate and river traffic while crews investigate the extent of the crack and repair the beam, according to the Tennessee Department Transportation, which shares responsibility of the bridge with Arkansas.

Tennessee DOT Chief Engineer Paul Degges said the repairs “could take weeks, possibly months.”

“It’s a potential disaster,” John Gnuschke, a retired economist previously with the University of Memphis, told Fox 8 on Wednesday. “There is going to be a delay in goods and services across the country, and it’s all going to be because of this bridge.”

In 2020, an average of 35,000 vehicles, 29% of which were trucks, used the bridge daily, The Associated Press reports.

On the river below, at least 24 vessels and 346 barges were backed up in “either direction,” Lt. Mark Pipkin of United States Coast Guard Sector Lower Mississippi River told CNN on Wednesday.

Adel Abdelnaby, a civil engineering professor at the University of Memphis, said the closure could cause a major disruption given the location, Local Memphis reported.

“If you compare it to a body, this looks like the arteries and this is the heart of the country,” Abdelnaby said, according to the station. “So if you cut the heart of the country, it’s like you are giving the country a heart attack by shutting down the I-40 bridge because that is what connects the east and the west to the rest of the U.S.”

The area is the “third heaviest freight corridor in the country,” and the shutdown could lead to delays in fulfilling online orders and restocking store shelves, Martin Lipinski, director of the University of Memphis Intermodal Freight Transportation Institute, told the outlet.

About the closure

Steve Frisbee, Arkansas DOT assistant chief engineer of operations, said in a statement that the fracture in the bridge is a “result of wear-and-tear.”

“We are taking extra precautions and inspecting the rest of the bridge for problematic damage while it is closed to traffic,” Frisbee said.

The bridge was previously inspected in September 2020, and crews did not find “any structural deficiencies,” the department said.

Arkansas DOT Director Lorie Tudor said the crack had the “potential of becoming a catastrophic event.”

Tudor said the “primary goal” is safety and the “secondary goal” is reopening the bridge as soon as possible. But repairs are expected to be complex.

“Even simple solutions such as welding a repair into place is more complicated with this bridge due to its size and that it’s over water,” Frisbee said.

Inspectors said they need to figure out whether the bridge can hold its own weight and the weight of construction crews, NPR reported. Barge traffic won’t be able to resume until inspectors determine whether the bridge can stand on its own despite the fracture.

The Tennessee DOT said it will provide a reopening timeline as soon as it’s available.