Double Disasters Leave An Alabama Fishing Village Struggling

Aug 19, 2015
Originally published on August 20, 2015 2:21 pm

The people of Bayou la Batre, Ala., say you know their town by the four seasons.

"Shrimp, fish, crab and oyster," says Stephanie Nelson Bosarge. "That's your four seasons."

Bosarge grew up here in a house less than a thousand feet from the water — one of nine kids, the fourth generation to work in the seafood industry.

Today all that's left of the house is a concrete slab. Grass and weeds are creeping up over what's left of the oyster run, where a conveyor belt once carried shells between the shuckers.

"This is living proof right here," says Paul Nelson, Bosarge's brother, "that the grass grows over and people forget about what was here, what was raised here, what was done here."

The Impact Of Katrina

Hurricane Katrina sent nearly 14 feet of water into Bayou la Batre, inundating homes and businesses. Rebuilding was out of reach. Insurance paid off debt, but there wasn't enough left to start again.

"Before Katrina, everything was a struggle. After Katrina, everything was impossible," Bosarge says.

About 2,600 people live in Bayou la Batre, originally the site of a 1700s French gun battery. It became known for its abundance of seafood. More recently it was made famous in the movie Forrest Gump. The town is built around the bayou, a narrow waterway that leads into the Gulf of Mexico.

Local author Frye Gaillard — in his book about the town, In the Path of the Storms -- wrote that Bayou la Batre has come back from past disasters.

"Their sort of ancient bargain," says Gaillard, "has been that if you work hard, the water's out there, the fish are out there, the shrimp are out there, the oysters. So you can make a living."

Then Came The Spill

But restarting commerce stalled five years after Katrina, when the BP oil spill shut down Alabama's Gulf seafood harvesting for months.

"Hurricanes have always battered this place," says Gaillard. "I think the other shadow over this area is the oil spill. And nobody is totally sure what the long-term effect of that is going to be."

City officials estimate seafood processing here is about a third what it was. That has displaced the workers who used to shuck oysters, pick crabs and pull the heads off shrimp.

Twenty percent of Bayou la Batre's residents are Asian, mainly families that settled here after the Vietnam War, and they are a big part of the seafood workforce.

Maria Spencer, originally from Vietnam, is an oyster shucker. "Before Katrina we worked a lot," she says. "After Katrina a little bit."

Tuan "Dave" Do, a program coordinator with Boat People SOS, a national Vietnamese-American community organization, says tiny Bayou la Batre sometimes gets forgotten for the more dramatic story of Katrina's devastation of New Orleans, two states away.

"The spill damaged right at the heart of the seafood resources," says Do. "So they don't have any job available like they used to."

Political Corruption Adds To The Struggle

The city has also struggled politically after its mayor was convicted on federal corruption charges. He was caught in a scheme to profit from a housing development intended for Katrina victims.

Now residents in that development, called Safe Harbor, are frustrated by what they perceive as broken promises to help get them back on their feet.

Stephanie Baker moved into a three-bedroom manufactured home to escape the cramped FEMA trailer she was in after her home flooded as a result of Hurricane Katrina. At first, rent was based on income and held promise, she says.

"If I paid my rent on time for the first year," says Baker, "that money that I put into paying my rent was going to go toward my down payment of rent to own the house. And come to find out it wasn't like that at all."

Baker says her rent has more than tripled and she has taken a second job to keep up with expenses.

That's the way it is on the bayou, says Stephanie Bosarge. You find a way to survive because there's always the hope of a better catch.

"You starve to death today," she says, "and you live good tomorrow."

The question is whether the good living will come again.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You can trace a decade of disaster on the Gulf Coast by visiting one small town in Alabama. The town is called Bayou La Batre.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And about 10 years ago, Hurricane Katrina sank it under almost 14 feet of water. People slowly came back after the water went down.

INSKEEP: And then came the BP oil spill, which struck at the livelihood of this fishing village. NPR's Debbie Elliott revisits the town now.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: They say you know Bayou la Batre by the four seasons.

STEPHANIE NELSON BOSARGE: Shrimp, fish, crab and oyster, that's your four seasons.

ELLIOTT: Stephanie Nelson Bosarge grew up here in a house less than a thousand feet from the water, one of nine kids, the fourth generation to work in the seafood industry. Today, all that's left is a concrete slab.

BOSARGE: This was part of the house here. This was the back porch here. And that was all shop over there. You walked out one door and into the other.

ELLIOTT: Grass and weeds are creeping up over what's left of the oyster run, where a conveyor belt once carried shells between the shuckers. Bosarge's brother, Paul Nelson, says those days are over.

PAUL NELSON: This is one of living proof right here that the grass grows over and people forgets about it - what was here, what was raised here, what was done here.

ELLIOTT: Peak season, Nelson says, the family had two dozen shuckers and 60 oystermen working for them. But building back was out of reach. Insurance paid off debt, but there wasn't enough left to start again. Bosarge says that's been a bitter pill for the fiercely independent family used to getting by with hard work and a day's catch.

BOSARGE: Before Katrina, everything was a struggle. After Katrina, everything was impossible. And it's still impossible today.

ELLIOTT: About 2,600 people live in Bayou La Batre, originally the site of a 1700s French gun battery that soon became known for its abundance of seafood. More recently, it was made famous in the movie "Forrest Gump." The town is built around the bayou, a narrow waterway that leads into the Gulf of Mexico. Local author Frye Gaillard sits on a dock looking out over the shrimp boats, shipyards and seafood processors clustered here.

FRYE GAILLARD: Their sort of ancient bargain has been that if you work hard, the water's out there. The fish are out there. The shrimp are out there, the oysters. And so you can make a living.

ELLIOTT: In the neighborhoods, it's not unusual to see a fishnet hanging from tree limbs or rubber waders left out to dry on the front porch. Gaillard's book, "In The Path Of The Storms," looks at how that way of life has slowly been chipped away by both economic forces and natural disasters like Katrina.

GAILLARD: And it was a terrible blow. The storm surge essentially covered where we're sitting right now and just wiped out most of the central part of this town.

ELLIOTT: Boats, homes and businesses were swamped. Massive cargo ships and shrimp vessels were stranded in the marsh. But people tried to start over, as they had been dating to 1906, when another hurricane of the century wiped the town off the map. Houses were cleaned out, fixed up and elevated. But restarting commerce stalled five years after Katrina, when the BP oil spill shut down Alabama's Gulf seafood harvesting for months.

GAILLARD: Hurricanes, you know, have always battered this place. You know, I think the other shadow over this area is the oil spill. And nobody is totally sure what the long-term effect of that's going to be.

ELLIOTT: City officials estimate seafood processing here is about a third of what it was. That's displaced the workers who used to shuck oysters, pick crabs and pull the heads off shrimp, many from Bayou La Batre's sizable Asian population.

HUGH TRAN: Everybody ready?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah.

TRAN: Go.

ELLIOTT: At the local Boat People SOS office, volunteer Hugh Tran turns a bingo spin basket to call out numbers during a monthly fundraiser.

TRAN: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

ELLIOTT: Community members pay a dollar a page to get in on the action.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Ding ding ding ding ding.

TRAN: Bingo.

ELLIOTT: Twenty percent of Bayou La Batre's residents are Asian, mainly families that settled here after the Vietnam War. Maria Spencer, originally from Vietnam, is an oyster shucker.

MARIA SPENCER: Before Katrina, we work a lot. And now after Katrina, only a little bit.

ELLIOTT: Before Katrina, she says, there was plenty of work - but now only a little bit. Tuan Dave Do is a program coordinator with Boat People SOS. He says this tiny community in Alabama sometimes gets forgotten in the broader story of Katrina's devastation, often focused on New Orleans two states away. No matter how hard they try to rebound, Do says, the double blow of the storm and then the BP oil disaster has kept them back.

TUAN DAVE DO: The spill, it damaged, you know, straight the heart of the seafood resources. So like, you know, they don't have any jobs, you know, available like they used to.

ELLIOTT: The city has also struggled politically after its mayor was convicted on federal corruption charges. He was caught in a scheme to profit from a housing development intended for Katrina victims. Now residents in that development, called Safe Harbor, are frustrated by what they perceive as broken promises to help get them back on their feet.

STEPHANIE BAKER: My name is Stephanie Baker. I lived down there in the bayou when Katrina first hit.

ELLIOTT: Catching a breeze on the front porch of her manufactured three-bedroom home, Baker just got off work. She prepares stuffed crap and crab cakes at a local food distributor and is still wearing a blue hairnet from the job. She moved to this subdivision just outside of town on high ground to escape the cramped FEMA trailer she was in after her home flooded in Katrina.

BAKER: It was a whole lot better. Everybody was happy.

ELLIOTT: Baker says at first, rent was based on your income and held promise.

BAKER: If I paid my rent on time for the first year, that money that I put in paying my rent was going to go toward my down payment of rent to own a house. And come to find out it wasn't like that at all.

ELLIOTT: Her rent has more than tripled, Baker says. And she's taken a second job on weekends at the Dollar General store to keep up. That's the way it is on the bayou, says Stephanie Bosarge. You find a way to survive because there's always the hope of a better catch.

BOSARGE: You starve to death today, and you live good tomorrow.

ELLIOTT: The question is whether the good living will come again. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Alabama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.