By Karl Plume and P.J. Huffstutter
CHICAGO, Sept 7 (Reuters) - Grain exports from U.S. Gulf Coast terminals in southern Louisiana remained severely limited on Tuesday, even after the U.S. Coast Guard reopened the lower Mississippi River to shipping traffic over the weekend.
A large terminal near Baton Rouge owned by Louis Dreyfus Co has resumed loading export vessels. But lingering power outages kept most of about a dozen other terminals in the area shuttered, more than a week after Hurricane Ida roared through the busiest U.S. export outlet for grains.
Just weeks before peak grain export season, Ida roared through and crippled grain and oilseed shipments from the Gulf Coast, outlet for about 60% of U.S. exports.
Export inspections last week of U.S. soybeans, a gauge for eventual shipments, were the lowest in seven years, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data showed. No soybeans were inspected in the Gulf, the data showed.
USDA said 275,799 tonnes of corn were inspected for export in the week ended Sept. 2, including just 84,733 tonnes at the Louisiana Gulf, the slowest week in two years.
Archer-Daniels-Midland Co, which operates four export elevators in Louisiana, and Bunge Ltd, which has an export terminal and a soy processing plant there, said on Tuesday their facilities remain without power. Terminals owned by Cargill Inc and CHS Inc sustained some damage and also are waiting for power to be restored.
Commodity trader and logistics firm Hansen-Mueller Co said the company has been contacted by exporters looking to ship wheat, corn and soybean meal out of its Houston facility amid disruptions in New Orleans.
"We anticipate that until capacity in (New Orleans) starts to come back online that Houston will continue to see grain shipments it would normally not see," said Paul Johnson, chief operating officer at Hansen-Mueller.
Ship and barge traffic has picked up after the Mississippi River reopened, although movement is slow as the channel remains littered with various obstructions, including sunken barges, according to shipping notices seen by Reuters.
The bulk vessel Limnionas, the first grain export vessel to set sail since the storm hit, entered the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday after loading with about 75,000 tonnes of soybeans on Sunday at Louis Dreyfus' Port Allen terminal, according to grain shipping sources and Eikon vessel tracking data.
Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said crews are still working to clear the river and identify where the storm-battered barges are and who owns them.
"About 50% of the grain elevators' barges have been identified so far," Strain said.
Some grain elevators are using staging areas up-river to store these barges and park them in the water until the waterway is fully navigable, Strain said. Some of these barges are starting to head upriver, he said.
"We've got to get those empty barges up the river, so they can be filled," he said.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Tuesday that although there are some disruptions from the storm, the USDA does not expect the damage to "significantly curtail our capacity to export" grains. (Reporting by Karl Plume and P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago; Additional reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by David Gregorio)