The fishing communities of lower St. Bernard Parish bore the brunt of Katrina's winds and storm surge. Now they're fighting federal indifference and incompetence.
It's hard to believe that George Barisich is laughing, but he is. He's explaining how he's just been turned down for hurricane assistance from Catholic Charities.
"I got screwed again," Barisich says over the phone.
The irony of the situation is killing Barisich. The 50-year-old veteran shrimper and resident of Violet in St. Bernard Parish has donated hundreds of pounds of fresh seafood annually to his church, Our Lady of Lourdes, and to Archbishop Hannan High School, the Catholic school his two sons attended. Now that Barisich needs help, he can't get any ' not from the federal government, not even from his church.
When contacted, officials at Catholic Charities say the organization has a policy of not officially refusing aid to anyone. However, the group may refer some cases to other organizations that might be better able to assist them.
The lack of charity from his favorite charity isn't the punch line for Barisich. What really has him cracking up is why Catholic Charities won't give him support. It's not because he makes too much money; his monthly bills outweigh his monthly income by $2,000, so he definitely qualifies for some form of aid. In fact, according to Barisich, he's overqualified.
"They told me my need is too great," Barisich chuckles.
Not far away, Fabian Guerra isn't laughing much these days. The 47-year-old fisherman is sitting in a plastic lawn chair on the 3-foot concrete foundation on which his house once stood. Near him sits his father, Jerry, and Fabian's wife, Pam. A couple of his grandchildren run in and out of a FEMA trailer located next to the foundation. Before Katrina struck, Fabian's home in Hopedale, a small fishing village in lower St. Bernard Parish, was the first house he had lived in since Hurricane Betsy destroyed his dad's house in 1965.
"It was a big kick in the pants," Guerra says, remembering his two-story home. "I was living large."
He grew up in a trailer, raised his family in another, and now he's back in one, wrestling with his next move. Guerra doesn't have to walk very far to go to work. Across the only road that cuts through Hopedale is Bayou La Loutre, a small waterway that runs from the village of Yscloskey, through Hopedale, and eventually empties into Lake Borgne. Guerra's 35-foot skiff is docked on this shallow bayou, which is filled with the murky, brackish water that nurtures some of the world's best-tasting seafood. This water has been the source of his family's livelihood for generations.
St. Bernard Parish's official historian, Bill Holland, says Guerra can trace his family back as far as the late 1700s, when immigrants from the Canary Islands first arrived in St. Bernard. Their descendants became known as Los Isle'os ("The Islanders"). They were sugar cane farmers, cattlemen, hunters and trappers. Some Isle'os traveled to the far southeastern stretches of St. Bernard and became commercial fishermen. By the late 19th century, Yscloskey, Delacroix and Shell Beach were firmly established as commercial fishing villages. Hopedale later developed as an outgrowth of Yscloskey and Shell Beach. Guerra wonders if this will be the end of the line for his family's life in Hopedale.
His daughters have little interest in fishing, and there isn't much left besides the bayou water and marsh grass to anchor them to the area. Katrina scattered the family home to parts unknown and damaged his fishing boats and equipment. Even more devastating to this man, accustomed to working 16-20 hours a day on his boat, however, is his new daily routine of fighting his insurance company and waiting for the bayou to be cleared of debris. He hasn't worked in more than two months.
"I've crawled into a big hole, and it's hard to look up," Guerra says.
Commercial fishermen like Guerra, Barisich and the generations that preceded them have long played a major ' but often overlooked ' role in Louisiana's economy. How vital is commercial fishing to the state? Consider these statistics:
â?¢ A 2005 Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries publication states that in 2003 (the most recent year recorded) commercial fishing had an economic impact of more than $2.6 billion on the state's economy, supporting 29,245 jobs and accounting for $100 million in state sales and income tax revenue.
â?¢ Louisiana ranks second in the nation in commercial fisheries production and is home to three of the top six commercial fishing ports.
â?¢ Today's average American consumes more seafood than ever ' 16.6 pounds per year ' with shrimp, at 4.2 pounds per year, now the No. 1 choice for seafood.
â?¢ Although the United States imports 88 percent of its shrimp, Louisiana remains a top producer. Louisiana fishermen harvest 37 percent of the nation's domestic shrimp and 35 percent of the nation's oysters.
Unfortunately for Guerra and many of his fellow fishermen in lower St. Bernard Parish, the federal government seems unaware of the money and jobs at stake. The feds' response to the post-Katrina crisis in the industry has been woefully lethargic in terms of recovery projects and harshly frugal in terms of financial aid. That lack of concern and action may deal a final blow to these small seafood harvesters.
A United States geological survey map of Hurricane Katrina's path reveals that the storm dealt a direct hit to lower St. Bernard Parish. Although exact wind speeds are disputed, the National Weather Service estimates that Katrina had sustained winds of 140 mph when it made landfall in Grand Isle. Because the fishing villages of Hopedale, Yscloskey, Shell Beach and Delacroix lie outside the parish's levee system, Katrina's 18-foot storm surge roared inland unimpeded. In the wake of Katrina's wind and storm surge, little was left standing in these fishing villages.
In advance of the storm, most of the area's commercial fishermen moved their boats inland to the Violet Canal, which is protected by a levee. When Katrina's storm surge flashed up the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, multiple levee breaches and overtoppings occurred. Water even burst through the Violet Canal's locks. Because many fishermen stayed with their boats, they were able to loosen boat lines to allow their vessels to float up with the rising water. Later, as the water receded, the quick-thinking group maneuvered its own boats around the canal and re-anchored others, preventing many vessels from being lost or stuck on land.
Barisich, the president and founder of United Commercial Fishermen Association, believes the actions of these intrepid fishermen enabled 90 percent of the boats in the Violet Canal to survive the storm. Many others weren't so lucky. A preliminary FEMA survey in March concluded that at least 1,075 boats in coastal Louisiana needed to be salvaged.
Even though the fishermen of lower St. Bernard saved most of the commercial fleet, most of the boats sustained major equipment losses. Guerra says he has lost more than $40,000 in nets, electronics, generators, motors and boat trailers. With tight profit margins ' fishermen typically make less now than they did 20 years ago ' Guerra, like most commercial fishermen, couldn't afford to insure any of his lost equipment. Barisich says his uninsured loss, which includes property, equipment and private oyster bed destruction, totals more than $500,000.
Katrina transformed coastal Louisiana from a fishing paradise into a saltwater-inundated, debris-infested, mud-caked hell. The surge pushed salt water into the brackish and freshwater marshes and wetlands. According to congressional testimony in March by John Roussell, assistant secretary of LDWF, the storm killed "virtually 100 percent of the freshwater game fish in the heavily impacted areas." With so much salt water pooling in these wetlands, marsh grass and other vegetation died, leaving little oxygen and making the areas uninhabitable for freshwater fish.
The wind and surge also tore through wetlands, lifted tons of dead vegetation and sediment, and deposited them atop nearby oyster reefs, choking if not destroying whole beds. LDWF reports that oyster availability has been cut by 74 percent in the wake of the storm. One of the hardest hit oyster-harvesting areas was Lake Borgne, where many in St. Bernard's fishing villages farm their reefs.
Katrina likewise ripped apart homes, docks, trees, and other structures, dumping much of the flotsam in the bayous and channels that local fishermen, shrimpers and oyster farmers ply in the course of their work. Almost a year later, many of those waterways remain impassable. Hidden amid the wreckage are tanks of oil and gas from transportation stations previously located throughout the extensive coastal marshes. During Roussell's testimony to the Subcommittee on Fisheries and Oceans, he admitted that the tanks and their contents have yet to be found, and safely removing them will not be easy. The tanks are like sunken mines, able to rip into passing boats ' or be ripped open by propellers and dredges ' and spill their polluting liquids.
Almost 50 percent of Louisiana's commercial fishermen lack gear or cannot leave their marinas and docks because of hidden hazards in the waterways. As a result, the number of commercial trips from September to December 2005 plummeted. Based on LDWF documents, commercial fishing trips, including shellfish, oysters, crabs, saltwater fish, menhaden, and freshwater fish excursions, fell by 60 percent. In a scant four months, the state's fishermen swallowed a loss of more than $18 million, many because they simply could not leave the docks.
That number is dwarfed by what the Louisiana Fishing Community Rebuilding Coalition, made up of 20 fishing organizations throughout the state, concludes is the loss to the state's fishing infrastructure ' boats, docks, ice houses, fuel facilities and processing plants. The coalition estimates the total loss at more than $943 million.
Without infrastructure, fishermen can't fish. Katrina also ruined the icehouse that served Yscloskey, Hopedale and Shell Beach. The slips, boathouses and docks are almost completely gone, and there are only two fuel docks on all of Bayou La Loutre. Lynette Gonzales, owner of Net's Rock-n-Dock in Yscloskey, needed only a dock and some tractor-trailers to reopen her place in mid-November. Gonzales buys seafood directly from commercial fishermen and sells ice to fishermen. With the area's only icehouse closed, Gonzales is the sole source of what is suddenly a very valuable commodity, but hers is a small operation. Born and raised in Yscloskey, Gonzales purchased the dock in 2005. She neglected to insure her investment, but her father rebuilt the dock with wood and materials collected after the storm. Gonzales describes her dock as "old and new" ' bits and pieces of smashed Yscloskey docks.
When she first resurrected the dock, Gonzales had no machinery, so she bought seafood by hand until she could afford to buy a conveyor belt. Her house across from her dock was wiped out, and now Gonzales lives in a trailer. She has decided to wait until she sees "what the next years bring us" before rebuilding the house. If a hurricane hits the area again, Gonzales insists she will rebuild her business, but she doesn't want to have to worry about rebuilding a house as well.
With so much devastation to the environment and a vital industry at stake, the fishermen of St. Bernard hoped the federal government would step in immediately and bring relief. Instead, Congress has approved barely 10 percent of the funding requested to rebuild Gulf Coast fisheries, and 11 months after the storm, most of the waterways still haven't been cleared of debris.
After months of frustration at having no income and being stuck in the Violet Canal because of submerged and semi-submerged debris that poses a hazard to navigation, Barisich finally left the canal on May 4. He knew he was running a risk. Bayou La Loutre had only been cleared of sunken boats, not additional debris such as cars, trees or house wreckage.
"I took a chance," says Barisich. "I left at high tide, and I still bumped twice."
Diane and Gary Phillips were part of the fishing infrastructure in Hopedale. The couple relocated from Arkansas in 1992 when they bought Pip's Place, a marina with fuel docks, boathouses, a bait shop, boating supplies, hoists and living quarters. Diane says it was the love of the water and a need for change that first brought the former schoolteacher and her husband, a contractor, to the area. Soon after arriving, they settled into the 14-hour days the marina demanded, with hurricanes being the price of living in the "very best place in the country."
They survived hurricanes Andrew, Georges, Isidore and Lily. Even after every boathouse was destroyed and 3 feet of water had flooded the main building, they always reopened within four days of a storm. Now, not even a shingle or a splinter of wood remains of the marina, which covered 560 feet along the banks of Bayou La Loutre.
After Katrina, the couple concluded it would be a while before they could resume even limited operations. When their first commercial property adjuster contacted them in early December and told them they would receive $170,000 in windstorm insurance proceeds, they thought they would be back in business by spring. Combined with the money from their flood policy, they figured they could pay off their mortgage and purchase a couple of fuel dispensers. They were willing to live in their pickup until they could afford to build something bigger ' but at least they would be back.
A few days later, however, they were contacted by a new adjustor, who refused to meet with them but who deemed their property damage to be flood only.
In March, the Louisiana Fishing Community Rebuilding Coalition, along with other fishing organizations from the Gulf States, made a trip to Washington, D.C., to request federal aid. The group met with congressional staffers and legislators representing the Gulf South. After explaining their need, the coalition asked for $1.1 billion for fisheries and fishermen affected by Katrina in Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. In April, that amount was included in the early version of the Iraq/Katrina Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill.
When Congressman Charlie Melancon talks about that bill, his voice resonates with anger. Melancon, whose district includes St. Bernard Parish, says that by the time the measure became law there was only $128 million for Gulf Coast fisheries and fishermen. Melancon blames this on the collective ignorance and lack of compassion among Washington bureaucrats.
"The people of the Gulf Coast get treated like second-class citizens," Melancon says. "They're working people; they paid their taxes, and they did what they thought was right by life's rules. Should we help them? Yeah. What feeds the taxes in this country to keep it running? It's these people."
Melancon doesn't believe the slashed funding was because of the state's lack of political clout in Congress, because the meager $128 million is to be divided among the five affected states ' including President Bush's home state of Texas.
Louisiana's share of the federal aid comes to just under $53 million. The money will be sent to the LDWF, which will disburse the funds statewide. Jim Hanifen, assistant administrator for LDWF's Marine Fisheries Division, reports that the agency is in the process of formally applying for the federal funds through the U.S. Department of Commerce. He says the state has a target date of Oct. 1 ' more than a year after Katrina ' for receiving the money.
"We waited so long to do something for the fisheries," Hanifen says.
It won't be near enough for the state's ravaged coast and fishermen. As the LDWF's Roussell pointed out in his congressional testimony, the oyster industry alone suffered $176 million in losses. Those losses include not only sack oysters, but also seed oysters, which can be transplanted to beds for future seasons. According to Hanifen, the LDWF can only allocate $23 million to reseeding, rehabilitating and rebuilding public oyster reefs. Of that $23 million, the only direct benefit to oyster farmers is that the state will pay the permit fees for moving oysters from one place to another.
Although many state-leased oyster beds aren't producing or even accessible these days, oyster farmers must still pay rent to maintain their rights to the grounds.
Hanifen says another portion of the federal aid ' the amount has yet to be determined ' will be used for removing obstructions from fisheries and some habitat restoration. Hanifen says it's possible that fishermen could receive bounties for reporting obstructions and removing them. The last part of Louisiana's share will pay for cooperative research for monitoring the recovery of Gulf fisheries. Hanifen says this will allow LDWF to get a better sense of Katrina's true impact on the fisheries and how to plot recovery, and he thinks LDWF might allocate additional funds to compensate fishermen.
Perhaps the fishing coalition should have known that the feds would be of little help, considering the slow pace of clearing the waterways. The Coast Guard was assigned that task, with funding provided by FEMA, and while the Guard should be commended for its search-and-rescue efforts during the immediate aftermath of Katrina, the assignment of clearing waterways has overwhelmed Guard resources.
"We're in uncharted waters, and uncharted waters aren't good," says Master Chief Sam Allred, who is with the Coast Guard's Salvage, Wreck, and Debris Removal Office. "We're not salvage experts, but we're the closest thing federally."
Allred says the Coast Guard began vessel identification in late September and assigned case numbers to damaged, submerged and destroyed boats. Because that is not a typical Coast Guard assignment, the Shaw Group of Baton Rouge was brought in to handle the actual vessel salvaging. Even though the Coast Guard has little expertise in vessel salvaging, it is charged with managing Shaw's salvage operations.
Shaw Group pays for the lobbying services of Joe Allbaugh, former FEMA director and a close Bush confidante. Jim Bernhard, the founder and CEO for Shaw Group, is the former chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party.
Shaw started picking up submerged boats in December. No additional debris, which clogs the bayous and channels, could be removed under the contract. Moreover, contractors were told to halt efforts when they reached water that didn't have a previous infrastructure such as icehouses, docks or landings. That means Bayou La Loutre beyond the Breton Sound Marina ' the last dock before the MR-GO but still miles before the Gulf ' has yet to be cleared of submerged vessels. Oyster harvesters who own or lease beds in these areas have to risk ruining their boats to get to their beds. As one oyster farmer puts it, "The joke around here is you need two boats: one to get beat up and the other to fish with."
The complete cleanup of coastal waterways is scheduled to begin this month and will be completed in three phases. The most frequently used waterways, as identified by parishes and the state, will be cleared first, with remaining waterways being cleared afterwards. Bayou La Loutre will be part of the first phase, which the Guard hopes to complete within 90 days of the contract being issued.
Meanwhile, white shrimp season begins this month ' for those who can get their boats to where the shrimp are.
In the 88 years that Blackie Campo has lived in lower St. Bernard, he has become as much a part of the coastal community as the marsh grass. He has supplied fishermen with fuel, docks, boat hoists and supplies for 73 years, and he has paid his taxes. He has lost his home to hurricanes four times ' in 1947, 1956, 1965 and 2005. He has the hardened wisdom earned from picking up the pieces time and again.
As he sits by the remnants of his dock ' his granddaughter's husband is working on the two fuel pumps that remain ' Campo, tanned as dark as the murky water, isn't bitter about his new circumstances. Still, he can't help reflecting on the irony of a federal government that supports rebuilding a foreign country but won't support its own land and people. "They haven't offered us any help," Campo says. "But they've spent $100 billion on people who would shoot us in the bat of an eye. We bombed their houses and then we go back and build them up again. They don't have to ask ' we just do it."
Like Campo, the fishermen of St. Bernard have learned a familiar lesson about Hurricane Katrina recovery: You can't depend on the federal government for help, but individuals, as well as faith-based and secular organizations, will lend a hand. Shell Oil & Exploration donated two icehouses, and the Alaskan Fishermen's Association has provided a traveler's lift, a 60-ton cranelike machine that lifts boats off land and puts them back into the water.
Private donations are appreciated, but the real money is in Washington. Barisich's group, United Commercial Fishermen's Association, drove to the nation's capital and gave away a deck box full of shrimp in an effort to showcase fresh, wild-caught, Louisiana shrimp ' and to try to influence legislators. The fishermen didn't get the funding they sought, but that didn't deter them.
Another group, the White Boot Brigade, has discovered that consumerism might be the best way to promote their cause. The group recently stomped up to New York City in their hallmark white "shrimp boots" and asked restaurants to feature Louisiana shrimp on their menus. Many chefs didn't know the difference between the delicate and complicated flavors of wild shrimp from Louisiana and the bland, farm-raised Asian shrimp that some of them had been serving.
"We want to bring the fishermen to places like D.C., New York, Chicago and L.A. with the message that these folks are here to do business," says Richard McCarthy, founder of the White Boot Brigade.
McCarthy, who runs the Crescent City Farmers Market, says the New York effort succeeded. Chefs are serving Louisiana shrimp, and New York retailers are selling the product. McCarthy believes this kind of relationship ' a direct link between fishermen and consumers ' could save the Louisiana shrimping industry. Rather than focusing on an industrial approach with larger and larger shrimp catches and smaller profits, McCarthy thinks shrimpers would benefit by raising quality standards to preserve the unique taste of Louisiana shrimp, making them the seafood equivalent of black Angus beef. That might mean smaller catches, but it could also bring higher specialty prices.
Share Our Strength, a nonprofit organization that fights hunger in the United States, has led a number of tours of Louisiana since Katrina, including stops in the St. Bernard fishing villages. Billy Shore, founder of SOS, invites restaurateurs on the trips to increase their awareness of the suffering in the region and to generate new business relationships.
"You can't solve the social problems that we care about by just redistributing wealth," Shore says. "You have to find ways to create wealth. We call it community wealth because it goes directly back into the community."
Many of the touring restaurateurs have become more involved in fund raising for the New Orleans area, and some have seen the value of featuring Louisiana seafood on their menus. Tom Sasser, a Charlotte, N.C., restaurant owner, has asked his seafood buyer to make Hopedale a regular stop on his purchasing route.
George Barisich says it remains to be seen if he will continue as a commercial fisherman. The Small Business Administration offered him a loan, but only if he put up his two flooded homes in St. Bernard as collateral. Barisich says that's unacceptable, but he will keep searching for financial assistance and fighting for the fishermen.
Diane and Gary Phillips have sued their insurance company. They believe their home was flattened by wind before the storm surge hit lower St. Bernard. In November, a doctor told Gary, who has had renal cell cancer, to go home and make his final arrangements. Diane says if she loses Gary, she will still return to Hopedale.
"When you live in a place you love, and you love the place you're in, then that's what you do," Diane explains. "You pick up the pieces."
Fabian Guerra has filed a similar suit. He has also applied for Louisiana Recovery Authority funds and hopes "something will stick" so he can rebuild his home on his family's ancestral land. He admits that it's been hard for him in the months following Katrina, with so much government inertia and his own inability to provide for his family. He plans to work his boat during this year's white-shrimp season, because he knows he can't stay away too long.
As he ponders his short-term as well as long-term prospects, Guerra sums up the feelings of all those who remain in lower St. Bernard: "You see this bayou that runs out front? I was born and raised here, and the water that flows through there is like the blood that flows through my veins. When I'm separated from it, I feel like I'm smothering, like when you throw a fish up on the grass and it takes so long for it to die."
And just as a fish out of water flips and flops trying to get back into the water, the people of lower St. Bernard vow to do all they can to keep their way of life alive.