Gulf fishermen struggle to rebuild what Katrina destroyed

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YSCLOSKEY, La. — In a shower of sparks, Ricky Robin was repairing hurricane damage to “Lil’ Rick,” his 56-foot steel-hulled shrimp boat, when he spotted an out-of-town reporter snapping photos.

“I built her with my own hands in 1974, 33 years ago,” he said proudly, setting aside his welding torch. He was speaking to me across Bayou LaLoutre, the waterway that cuts through this little fishing village an hour’s drive southeast of New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish.

“I rode out the hurricane on board this boat,” he said in the lilting local dialect. “I ran Lil’ Rick up on the levee in Violet as the storm was raging so people could get somewhere safe. In less than an hour, I had 90 people aboard. My cousin Ronald and I pulled about 95 people out of the water.”

More than 300 people were marooned on the levee, said Robin (pronounced Cajun-style, “RoeBEHN”). They waited days to be rescued. “I have a locker on board and it was loaded with over 1,000 pounds of frozen shrimp,” he told the World. “So that’s how I was able to provide people with food and water.”

His heroic exploit was written up in the Sept. 12, 2005, edition of The Wall Street Journal under the headline, “After Katrina, a town of fisherman teeters on the brink.”



Still teetering

Two years later, it is still teetering, the single road through town strewn with the wreckage of houses pulverized in the storm. Many residents, Robin among them, are still living in FEMA house trailers. Robin is still waiting for approval of his “Road Home” grant so he can rebuild his home.

For the past two years, he has shuttled back and forth between Yscloskey and Tennessee where his wife, children and grandchildren took refuge. “I found a house about 20 miles from here and my wife is ready to come home,” Robin said. Even with a payout from FEMA and his insurance company, it has still taken two years to refit Lil’ Rick to return to the Gulf fishing grounds.

Robin and other shrimp fisherman toiled for months to clear wreckage and debris and dredge the channel so they could navigate their boats into Lake Borgne and out into the Gulf. The cost of that operation came out of the pockets of the fisherman. “I’m flat broke, now,” Robin said. “That’s why I have to get back out shrimping.”

Robin has met with President Bush and spoke favorably of him. A majority of St. Bernard Parish voters voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004. Yet Robin said this time, “only Sen. Hillary Clinton has come out with a program” to rebuild St. Bernard Parish.

Everyone in the parish suffered a loss in Katrina, he said. His father, Charles Robin, a boatbuilder, overcome by grief at loss of the family home, took his own life a year ago.



A monument at ‘Mr. Go’

On Aug. 29, residents dedicated a granite memorial just down a dead-end road from here in neighboring Shell Beach. It lists the names of 137 people of St. Bernard Parish who died. During the dedication, Robin performed “Taps” and “Amazing Grace” on his bugle. His mother, Ceily, laid a wreath at the monument.

The gray stone monolith, with a tall metal cross behind it, stands on the shore of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO), known here as “Mr. Go.” The people here blame the 76-mile, straight-as-an-arrow ship channel for stripping away 27,000 acres of wetlands since the Corps of Engineers finished it in 1965. It was 650 feet wide when first dug, but four decades of erosion has widened it to more than 2,000 feet.

Residents also refer to MR-GO as a “hurricane highway,” sharply accelerating wind speeds and storm surges right through St. Bernard Parish into the heart of New Orleans. That is exactly what happened Aug. 29, 2005, when Katrina barreled up MR-GO, generating a storm surge 25 feet above sea level.

In his book “The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina,” Ivor Van Heerden, a founder of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, said the surge slammed into the levees that protect New Orleans, toppling levee walls along the Industrial Canal, flooding the Upper and Lower 9th Ward.

“Mr. Go never should have been dug,” Robin told me. “The fisherman opposed it when it was proposed. We knew it would cut right through the wetlands and mess up the ecosystem. There is no one in the Corps of Engineers who has an ounce of common sense.”



Lost wetlands

Destruction of the coastal wetlands has also caused a subsidence, or sinking, of the land. Environmentalists charge that MR-GO permits salt water to flow into the marshes at high tide, killing the live oaks and cypress forests that thrived in the fresh-water marshes throughout the region. The silvery skeletons are all that remain of trees that once slowed hurricanes blowing in from the Gulf.

“Years ago, this was forest all the way to the Gulf,” Robin said. “Trees grew on Chandeleur Island and Free Mason Key.” Robin said. “There was farmland right here. Sugar cane grew right here in Yscloskey. Now it’s all under water.”

Exxon Mobil and Murphy Oil Company own refineries in St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish. Oil storage tanks ruptured during Katrina, spilling 8 million gallons of crude in the delta wetlands.

Carlton Dufrechou, executive director of the Lake Ponchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF), confirmed that erosion of the Gulf Coast is a key factor in the deadliness of hurricanes. Restoration of the wetlands, cypress forests and barrier islands is key to reducing the hurricane danger, he said.

Before Katrina, the most powerful hurricane to slam New Orleans was Betsy in 1965. Dufrechou said his family lived in a house beside the 17th Street Canal at that time, the levees far lower than today. “Yet the majority of New Orleans made it through Betsy with little damage. Now the levees are 17 feet high, yet much of the city was destroyed by Katrina.”

What made the difference? “It’s the erosion of the coast,” he said. “MR-GO cuts directly through 40 miles of wetlands. Once it served as a natural buffer between the Gulf and New Orleans.” Now there is nothing to slow the 100-mile-an-hour winds or absorb the tsunami-like storm surges of a Category 5 hurricane.



More action needed

“There is a recognition that for New Orleans to be sustained for the long term, we need a strong coast,” Dufrechou told the World. “Katrina and Rita really brought that home to people. But is anything being done to address coastal erosion? Only on paper. The funding to date has gone solely into rebuilding the levees.”

The only project aimed at stopping the crumbling away of the coast is $20 million to build an earthen barrier closing MR-GO. While strongly supported by the people, it is only one small step, he said. “Without a plan that restores the coast, we’re whistling in the dark.”

Tim Wheeler (greenerpastures21212 @yahoo.com) is national political correspondent for the People’s Weekly World.