Rivers wreaking havoc: Mississippi too high, Rhine too low

By Michelle Baran
October 3, 2012
Courtesy Memphis CVB

As a rain-bloated Mississippi River threatens to spill into more towns along its banks, water levels on Europe's Rhine River have dropped to 18-month lows, potentially impacting river cruise itineraries there.

Tourism destinations along the Mississippi this week are assuring visitors that their sites and attractions are not underwater.

"Graceland is safe. And we would charge hell with a water pistol to keep it that way and I'd be willing to lead the charge," said Bob Nations Jr., director of the Shelby County Emergency Management Agency.

Elvis Presleys's home, the Graceland mansion, is in Memphis, Tenn., where the Mississippi River crested on Tuesday. But the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau said that only one downtown attraction has been affected by the high water, Mud Island River Park and Museum, which is temporarily closed due to the lack of road access.

Further downriver, "New Orleans is not subject to the type of river and tributary flooding seen along other parts of the Mississippi River due to the extensive water diversion systems that guide high river waters away from New Orleans," the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau assured visitors.

When there is "flooding from a river like the Mississippi, probably the best place in the country to be is Baton Rouge and New Orleans," said Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans CVB.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the Rhine River could use some of the Mississippi's overflow.

Water levels on the Rhine have dropped to their lowest levels in 18 months and are threatening to fall further, according to a Bloomberg news report. Consequently, river cruise companies are having to come up with contingency plans in case the waters don't rise soon.

Avalon Waterways, which is christening its new Avalon Panorama ship this weekend, had to send guests and media invited to the christening ceremony and inaugural "Romantic Rhine" cruise from Frankfurt to Amsterdam a "Plan A," and a multi-pronged "Plan B," dependent on daily monitoring of water levels.

Other river cruise operators are also monitoring the situation, but haven't altered itineraries yet.

"Starting today, there is rain in the Alpine region, which feeds the Rhine," said Rudi Schreiner, president and co-owner of Ama Waterways. "The forecast for the next seven days looks very wet and hopefully the situation will improve."

If and when river cruise ships can't navigate portions of a river where the water level creates a problem, river cruise operators get creative to make sure that passengers can continue on their planned itinerary.

"A few years back, we had a high water situation on the Danube and two of our ships were stopped at the Deggendorf Bridge in Bavaria. So, we performed a 'ship swap.' We simply moved guests and their belongings from one ship to the other, turned the ships around and both continued on their journeys as per normal," recalled Guy Young, president of Uniworld River Cruises.

"Fortunately, the rivers of Europe are highly controlled through a series of locks and dam," explained Young. "Fluctuations in river water levels that impact the operation of passenger ships are therefore quite rare."

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Summer is our favorite time to get outside, soak up the sun and take in some tunes at the same time. Fortunately, it's also high time for music festivals across North America. To help you get a jump start on your rock 'n' roll planning, we've identified the best performances across the U.S. and Canada with an eye toward those events where tickets are still available. The season's hottest concerts sell out fast, so if something catches your eye you'll want to book tickets sooner rather than later. The Location: San Francisco. The Festival: Outside Lands. The Background: Staged in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, this three-day festival plays host to rock's and hip hop's biggest stars The Dates: August 12-14. The Acts: Muse, Phish, Arcade Fire, The Black Keys, DeadMau5, the Shins, MGMT, Erykah Badu, The Roots, and more. The Price: Most of the general admission tickets have already been sold out, but the regular 3-day ticket from $199.50 still has (limited) availability. 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Pushing trains as an alternative to the pump

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Chernobyl officially opens for tours

The big yellow Ferris wheel sits idle; the bumper cars look frozen in suspended animation, as if they were abandoned mid-collision. So does the nearby school, whose cafeteria is littered with the detritus of dusty gas masks in case of nuclear war, its classrooms strewn with Cyrillic math textbooks and Soviet newspapers from the 1980s. A sign warns schoolchildren to save energy and heat. Welcome to Pripyat, the Ukrainian town with the misfortune of sitting just miles from the world's most notorious nuclear power plant, Chernobyl. Twenty-five years ago this once heavily forested area bore the brunt of the world's deadliest nuclear power disaster, leaving untold victims who suffered from the radioactive fallout and ecological disaster in its wake. Now it is one of Ukraine's most visited sites. Roughly 6,000 tourists—most of them Europeans—stream through this ghost town annually on private tours unsanctioned by the authorities. But starting this year, the government is also looking to cash in on the plant's notoriety, with plans to open up the zone to official tours, as well as boost its safety by building a giant concrete shell to encase the reactor by 2015. See photos of Chernobyl today. After making the two-hour drive from Kiev, the tour kicks off in the no-frills office of the Ukrainian information agency. My guide, Yuri, points at color-coded maps of the radioactive fallout from the exclusion zone—or "dead zone"—a 30-kilometer radius that requires permits (and passports for foreigners) to enter. Next up is a drive-by photo op of the half-finished cooling towers and rusting nuclear reactors. There's an Iwo Jima-like statue devoted to the 29 firemen who died here, too. Tourists tote around a yellow Geiger counter, which resembles a garage door opener and beeps incessantly as it measures the air's radiation. Levels can vary from as low as 10 microroentgens or one-millionth of a roentgen, in Pripyat (harmless), to 200 in front of Reactor No. 4. (possibly harmful with long-term exposure), the site of the meltdown. "Only when it started beeping a lot was I scared," said Lina Selander, an artist visiting the nuclear zone from Sweden. "It's like Chernobyl's soundtrack." The most surreal stop of the tour is Pripyat. There are no hazmat-like outfits or special masks necessary. The poplars do not glow from radiation. The town is an eerily mundane time capsule, buried in dust and left almost exactly as it was when its roughly 50,000 inhabitants were forced to flee in 1986. Tourists are allowed to roam relatively un-chaperoned through the necropolis' spooky remains of apartment blocs, a gymnasium, dance hall, swimming pool, and an Orwellian-eque Palace of Culture, whose peeling sky-blue paint and scattered broken glass feel like a Soviet version of the Titanic. After the four-hour tour and a prison-style meal, visitors stand on a contraption that looks like a time machine. If it flashes green—no radiation—then you are good to go. On your way out of the exclusion zone, you (and your vehicle) must go through a similar radiation x-ray of sorts. Tours are not cheap, running upwards of $150 for groups and $400 for individuals. Sergii Mirnyi, a commander of the radiation reconnaissance platoon that responded in 1986, accuses the government of "milking" the disaster for every last tourist dollar. He says the reactor should stand as a monument to ecological education. "Chernobyl tourism," he told me, "undoubtedly can generate money. But I believe it can generate so much more." What do you think? Would you go on a tour of Chernobyl? Do you support the fact that the government is offering tours of the region? INFORMATION The government is expected to roll out official tours later this year. Until then, there are roughly a half dozen private companies offering tours in English. Visit or tourkiev.comfor more information. —Lionel Beehner