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Cracked Memphis Bridge Indefinitely Closed, Disrupting Supply Chain

A dangerous crack in a steel beam on the Interstate 40 bridge, near Memphis, Tenn., caused authorities to order an emergency closure, disrupting road and Mississippi River traffic.
A dangerous crack in a steel beam on the Interstate 40 bridge, near Memphis, Tenn., caused authorities to order an emergency closure, disrupting road and Mississippi River traffic.

Traffic on and below a major bridge over the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tenn., could be halted for several days or longer, causing significant disruptions to motorists and shipping, officials said Wednesday.

Authorities in Arkansas and Tennessee, along with the U.S. Coast Guard, indefinitely stopped all traffic related to the Hernando de Soto Bridge on Interstate 40 after inspectors discovered a crack in the steel structure Tuesday, and Tennessee officials said repairs could take some time.

The bridge connects Memphis to West Memphis, Ark., and is above a crucial waterway for barges transporting crops to export markets. Crews have begun emergency repairs.

Inspectors discovered a major fracture in a steel beam on the bottom truss crucial to the integrity of the bridge. Officials said it was found during a routine inspection.

Inspectors discovered the major fracture in a steel beam on the bottom truss that is crucial to the integrity of the Hernando De Soto Bridge. Officials said It was found during a routine inspection.
Arcaid / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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Inspectors discovered a major fracture in a steel beam on the bottom truss crucial to the integrity of the Hernando de Soto Bridge. Officials said it was found during a routine inspection.

Arkansas Department of Transportation Director Lorie Tudor said it had the potential to become a "catastrophic event," adding, "The bridge was closed to vehicular traffic and the river was closed to barge traffic as a safety precaution."

Authorities said barge traffic can't resume unless engineers determine that the bridge can stand on its own despite the rusting crack. They said it could take a couple of weeks just to complete a full inspection of the nearly 50-year-old bridge.

Inspectors have to figure out whether the bridge can hold its own weight and the weight of construction crews, according to The Associated Press.

"A timeline will be shared as soon as we have one," Tennessee transportation officials said in a statement Wednesday.

Meanwhile, motorists must continue to use alternate routes.

The discovery comes as the Biden administration is seeking to reach a bipartisan deal on a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure bill that would raise taxes to revamp dilapidated roads and bridges, among other programs.

"Let's see if we can get an agreement to kick-start this. And then fight over what's left and see if I can get it done without Republicans, if need be," President Biden told MSNBC on Wednesday.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and second gentleman Doug Emhoff were both in Memphis last week to promote the plan and garner support.

The Coast Guard said Mississippi river traffic is already backing up in both directions, with more than 400 barges awaiting passage, according to Reuters.

Lt. Mark Pipkin, a Coast Guard spokesman, told the wire service that there were 12 northbound vessels with 157 barges waiting to pass and another 16 vessels with 254 barges in the queue to go southbound. "The barges are carrying a mix of materials including crude oil and dry cargo like corn or rocks," Reuters said.

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