A big crack in the steel framework of a bridge over the Mississippi River has led to the bridge's closure, throwing traffic and shipping into disarray for the indefinite future. On Tuesday, the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, which connects Memphis, Tenn., and West Memphis, Ark., was shut down for emergency fixes after Tennessee Department of Transportation officials say a routine inspection revealed a big crack in one of the steel beams on the bottom of the bridge's truss, per a TDOT release. The release notes it isn't clear how long the crack, which officials believe is fatigue-related, will take to fix, but the take of the agency's chief engineer doesn't sound promising, per WREG. "Certainly, it's plausible that this could be months rather than weeks," says Paul Degges. "We are hopeful that we can find a solution that would allow us to proceed with some traffic but right now we just don't know."
"We have cracks on bridges, we document them and they're minor," Steve Frisbee, the assistant chief engineer for operations at the Arkansas Department of Transportation, adds. "This one is pretty significant." Authorities say it could take a couple of weeks simply to carry out a complete inspection of the bridge, which was completed in 1973, and to determine if the structure can continue to hold its own weight and that of repair crews. That uncertainty doesn't bode well for local traffic and shipping in the area, with that part of the river serving as a vital thoroughfare for barges bringing crops to export markets, per NPR. After the Coast Guard put in place a waterway restriction on Wednesday, at least two dozen vessels with hundreds of barges could be seen idling in the river, reports CNN. Meanwhile, vehicular traffic trying to cross the river has been rerouted to Interstate 55, as all Interstate 40 lanes on the bridge are now closed. (Read more bridge stories.)