Panama Canal Traffic Halted Due to Heavy Rains

December 9, 2010

Traffic in the Panama Canal, a major shipping waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, has been suspended temporarily due to heavy rains, the canal authority said Wednesday.

“We are taking steps to normalize traffic operations in the coming hours,” canal authority vice president Manuel Benitez said in a statement. If the shutdown only lasts a few hours it should have a minimal impact on trade.

Between 13,000 and 14,000 ships pass through the canal every year — about 36 per day — representing roughly 5 percent of world trade, according to the canal authority.

The last ship exited the canal around mid-day and some vessels were left idled in the waterway, a spokesman at the canal authority office told Reuters. He said the shutdown was only a “preventive” measure.

Ships can take weeks to cross through the 50-mile canal, which operates as a series of interconnected locks that raise and lower water levels to move massive barges.

This is the first time the canal has been shut since the 1989 U.S. invasion, the spokesman said.

Recent heavy rains have caused havoc in nearby Venezuela and Colombia and the authority said rainfall had pushed surrounding rivers and reservoirs to historically high levels, which could affect ships in transit.

The waterway is undergoing a huge expansion project to accommodate larger ships that will cost more than $5 billion dollars.

(Reporting by Sean Mattson, writing by Mica Rosenberg and Krista Hughes)

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