By Karl Plume
(Reuters) - U.S. grain exports slumped to their lowest level in years last week as shippers struggled to restart loading operations along the Louisiana Gulf Coast after Hurricane Ida flooded and damaged grain terminals and knocked out power across the region, preliminary data showed on Monday.
Weekly U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grain inspections data, an early indicator of shipments abroad, showed the volume of corn weighed and certified for export last week was the lowest in 8-1/2 years as no grain was inspected along the Louisiana Gulf Coast, the busiest outlet for U.S. crops.
Soybean inspections were up only slightly from the prior week's seven-year low as only a single large bulk grain ship bound for top importer China was loaded last week in the Pacific Northwest and none at the Gulf, USDA data showed.
Ida crippled overseas grain shipments just weeks before the start of the Midwest harvest and the busiest period for U.S. crop exports, sending export prices soaring and stoking global worries about food inflation.
Most of the nearly dozen large grain terminals dotted along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to the Gulf of Mexico escaped the storm with only minor damage, but the region's devastated power grid has hobbled the recovery.
More than 50 bulk vessels were lined up along the lower Mississippi River on Monday waiting to dock and load with grain once terminals reopen, and only a handful of ships had moved over the weekend, according to an industry vessel lineup report and Refinitiv Eikon shipping data.
The vessel Yangze Navigation was docked at Zen-Noh Grain terminal in Convent, Louisiana, on Monday waiting to be loaded with corn, the shipping data showed. Another vessel, the Darya Aum, docked over the weekend and was awaiting its soybean cargo at a terminal owned by Louis Dreyfus Co near Baton Rouge that was able to start loading vessels last week.
Archer-Daniels-Midland Co, one of the world's biggest grain traders, restarted operations on floating midstream rigs that transfer crops from barges onto bulk ships.
The USDA's Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) said late last week that its New Orleans field office is still recovering from the storm and that its inspectors are working with exporters to provide official grain inspection and weighing services. The agency has no estimate as to when inspections will fully recover, FGIS said in an emailed statement.
FGIS inspectors checked just 138,189 tonnes of corn in the week through Sept. 9, down 85% from the same week a year ago, USDA data showed. Soybean inspections totaled 105,368 tonnes, down 94% from the same week a year earlier.
(Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Paul Simao)