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Katrina pushing up prices across the board

Expect higher prices on everything from bananas to crabs -- assuming you can get them -- thanks to the blow Hurricane Katrina has dealt the nation's transportation, agriculture and fishing industries.

Expect higher prices on everything from bananas to crabs -- assuming you can get them -- thanks to the blow Hurricane Katrina has dealt the nation's transportation, agriculture and fishing industries.

The price for companies to move goods and people has grown, and that price is being passed on. In Baltimore, "Prices on your fresh fish now are higher than what they should be," said Bill Martin, president of Martin Seafood Co. in Jessup, Md.

Wholesale prices of tuna, grouper and snapper -- all of which are found in the Gulf of Mexico -- are up $1 to $1.50 per pound.

"It's all going to be passed on to the consumer," Martin told the Baltimore Business Journal. That is, if the consumer can find certain items to begin with.

Crabs became tough to find in the Baltimore area in early September. Yes, Maryland has its own crabs, but the big ones come from the Gulf. That led to trouble over the Labor Day weekend, traditionally a time for steamed crabs in the Chesapeake Bay area.

"The phone was ringing, we just didn't have the crabs," said Chris Hubbard, an owner of Don's Crabs in Maryland.

The pain doesn't stop there. Farmers trying to ship their harvest on the Mississippi River may have trouble finding barge space.

Drought in the Midwest had already lowered river levels to the point that some barges were running lighter than usual. Katrina added to the pain by temporarily closing the busy Port of New Orleans altogether and more recently restricting all cargo at the port to disaster recovery materials.

The Memphis Business Journal reported that the port closed for a week, sparking concern all the way into the Dakotas, where grain harvests are under way. It also caused banana prices to spike by a dime as Central American imports were re-routed to other ports.

"We've got tremendous human tragedy in New Orleans, but the impact on our shipping and the overall transportation industry will be far-reaching as we adjust to what has happened down there," said Jerry Fruin, an associate professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. About 60-70 percent of the nation's grain exports travel from the Port of New Orleans.

Kansas wheat farmers saw the impact almost immediately, the Kansas City Business Journal reports, when wheat prices sagging because of the potential export difficulties. "We feel very sorry for those people who have been put through all of this," he said. "But this has a ripple effect, and the ripples are moving very fast."

The storm left giant agricultural companies like Cargill Inc. high and dry. At one point last week, the firm had 300 barges loaded with grain, fertilizer and other goods stranded on the Mississippi. Cargill and others are scrambling for storage space for grain, as trains bound for New Orleans are parked across the country.

"The impact to us is our export grain operations are essentially halted until the U.S. Coast Guard and Corps of Engineers reopens the river to ocean-going vessels," David Feider, spokesman for Cargill, told the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal. "Until then, we can't unload the cargo."

Farmers from Kansas, the nation's largest wheat producing state, face tough storage issues, too, if they can't get their grain out through New Orleans.

"It will affect them in this season and in 2006," McReynolds said. "There's no wiggle room."

Rail and trucking have been disrupted by both the cost of fuel and damage to highway and rail hubs. Freight originally bound for the Port of New Orleans has been diverted to cities such as Memphis, Dallas and Atlanta, the Kansas City Business Journal reported.

And some of those problems are likely to continue for some time. The Jacksonville Business Journal reports that rail giant CSX Corp. will have to restore five damaged bridges before it can fully restore service to New Orleans -- which is a big transfer point between eastern and western rail routes.

And though gas prices have eased somewhat since the first week of September, businesses are still feeling the pinch.

Even taxi drivers in Boston are feeling the shock. "It's devastating the drivers right now," said George Delott, a driver who was waiting recently for fares in a cab pool at Logan International Airport.

American City Business Journals, Inc.