updated 9/7/2005 4:12:14 PM ET 2005-09-07T20:12:14

The hurricane-ravaged lower Mississippi River is open to two-way traffic for grain shipments from the Gulf Coast, and 63 percent of grain elevator capacity has been restored, the government said Wednesday.

“Vessels are moving on the river. Vessels are being loaded today, literally as we speak,” Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns told reporters.

But, he added, shipments remain restricted. River navigation is limited to the daytime because Hurricane Katrina knocked out lights used at night.

Also, because there are two blockages in the major shipping channel, known as the Southwest Pass, the Army Corps of Engineers is limiting ships to a draft of 39 feet. That is keeping larger vessels out of the channel.

Removing the two obstructions and allowing nighttime navigation are the biggest hurdles to resuming shipping, said Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, chief of engineers for the corps.

The United States exports one-fourth of its grain. More than half of that amount departs from Mississippi Gulf ports hit by Katrina. Producers rely on the Mississippi River as the cheapest route for shipping crops and other commodities overseas.

Officials said some grain company employees and federal grain inspectors have returned to work.

Johanns said most of the 10 grain export elevators along the lower Mississippi are able to operate.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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