Nightly News | July 24, 2012
>>> in parts of the midwest toda
>>> parts of the midwest today thunderstorms brought some welcome rain. it's a drop in the bucket compared to what they need to cope with this severe drought , which is officially the worst in 50 years. two thirds of the country now suffering through drought conditions . the extreme heat is making things worse. another brutal day in a lot of spots today. this hot, dry disaster has taken a huge toll on the mississippi river . the artery of commerce through the middle of our country. nbc's john yang is in dubuque, iowa tonight. john, good evening.
>> reporter: good evening, brian. the drought is a double whammy for mississippi barge shippers. the withering crops mean they have less product to ship. and the low water levels mean they have higher shipping costs and slower traffic. from minnesota to the gulf of mexico , the 2300 mile mississippi river is a critical backbone of american commerce, carrying 60% of the nation's grain, 22% of u.s. oil and gas . 20% of coal. in all, $180 billion of goods. but the drought of 2012 has humbled the mighty mississippi . steve frydel has worked on the river nearly a half century. he hasn't seen it like this in almost 25 years.
>> mother nature decides it wants to do something, it doesn't make any difference what man made does. when it decides it wants to take its course, it's going to take its course.
>> reporter: how hard is this drought hitting the mississippi ? travel down the maritime superhighway and see the dramatic drop. in cairo, illinois, 12 feet low than normal. further south in memphis, it's 17 feet lower than normal. in vicksburg, mississippi levels are off by 21 feet. usually here in st. louis, it's about 30 feet deep. right now the river is 15 feet deep. low water means less cargo in each barge to help them ride higher in the water, hauling empty space . costs don't go down.
>> it takes up the same amount of fuel to burn, and the same amount of manpower to operate the vessel that we're on.
>> reporter: it also means a narrow river channel, turning the mississippi into a one-way street. barges heading north have to wait for travel heading south , sometimes delaying shipments by days, and delays cost money. during the last big drought in 1988 , the mississippi got so low that barge traffic ground to a halt.
>> if that river's closed, there's a negative economic impact of $290 million a day, and it grows exponentially after the fourth day.
>> reporter: those comparisons to the big drought in 1988 are not out of the question. forecasters don't expect significant rain on the upper mississippi river for the rest of the summer. brian?
>> john yang , dubuque, iowa tonight. thanks for that report.