In rural towns, a way of life washed away
The fishermen of Plaquemines Parish, near New Orleans, face permanent disruption.
EMPIRE, LA. — As he drives his pickup truck through town - now reachable only via a makeshift road along the levee - Tony Slavich offers an impromptu tour.
The trailer of a friend who left before the storm on his oyster boat. The newly renovated civic center. The Empire Inn. The home of his fiancée's cousin, which was modeled after an old plantation and finished just a week before hurricane Katrina hit.
Without Mr. Slavich's descriptions, you would never recognize these buildings, since all that's left of most are a pile of debris and a memory of what used to be. And the geography has shifted, with some homes picked up and deposited several hundred yards away.
"It's disorienting," he says, pointing at a freezer truck suspended in a tree, pierced by branches.
Residents have always been wary of hurricanes in long, winding Plaquemines Parish, which starts in relatively urban Belle Chasse, abutting New Orleans, and follows the Mississippi River 70 miles to Louisiana's southeasternmost tip. This is bayou country, surrounded by wetlands and river, its rural sections populated sparsely with farmers, fishermen, and oil workers, with Vietnamese and Croatians, Creoles and Cajuns.
Since the eye of Katrina and a 20-foot storm surge swept through three weeks ago, the southern portions of the parish resemble little more than a junkyard. While enormous, the losses have affected far fewer people than the flooding in New Orleans (the entire population of Plaquemines is 27,000), and they've attracted far less attention.
But beyond the communities leveled, the hurricane has devastated a singular environment of waterland, and the havoc wreaked on a vital fishing industry is immense.
It will take two to three years to once again harvest oysters, which were smothered, says Harry Blanchet, a fisheries biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. For the shrimp and fish, he says, "That's the infrastructure. How do you build the roads back to places like Venice or Pointe a la Hache? Many commercial fishermen are not rich people. And they just don't have the long-term resources to say, 'I'll sit back for six months or a year and wait for this to happen.' "
In Louisiana, which produces a quarter of America's seafood, fishing is a nearly $3 billion-a-year industry. The state's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has estimated that Katrina will cost $1.3 billion.
The fishing towns in Plaquemines may take years to recover, but even in areas hit less hard by Katrina, like Jean Lafitte and Barataria, it may be months before fishermen can start working again. Those who still have boats are worried about damage from debris in the rivers, and with heavy contamination, there's little market, for the foreseeable future, for Louisiana seafood.
In Empire, Ivan Bjelis, an oysterman who came to the United States 26 years ago from Croatia, walks up wooden steps - all that is left of his trailer. The home of his brother, Mato, lies in splinters across the street from where it once stood. One of the brothers' boats, the Chef, is damaged but salvageable. The Molly sank. Like most fishermen here, the Bjelises don't carry insurance.
"Not this year, [there won't be] oysters. Maybe next year," says Mato. "What can you do?" The brothers don't want to rebuild in Empire, but they aren't sure yet where they'll go next.
A few miles north in Port Sulphur, named for the sulfur mines that used to employ everyone, Vi Do contemplates similar questions.
The shrimp fisherman and occasional welder lost everything in Katrina: his shrimp boat, his trailer, his welding machine.
"I don't think I'll come back. I don't have the money," says Mr. Do, who just finished paying off the loan for his 30-foot shrimp boat last year. "Now I'll start over again. I don't know how."
Other residents of Plaquemines were hit just as hard as the fishermen. More than half of the land remains flooded. Just clearing the debris will be a monumental task.
Patty Vogt, a fourth-generation farmer in Port Sulphur whose 40 acres of citrus trees have turned brown from salt water, lost her house, 4,000 trees, eight tractors, and 300 cows. About 60 of the cattle are still alive, she thinks, but they're stranded in salt water and she can't get to them. The rubble that now fills her yard is a museum of household items: Christmas decorations and file cabinets, electronics and a jar of homemade huckleberry jam.
"This is all I ever did," Ms. Vogt says, surveying the pile of furniture and tools she's rescued from her home. "We barely got out with our lives." As for rebuilding, she says it's unlikely: "We've never borrowed, never owed anything to anybody. I'm not going to start now."
Other residents say they will, indeed, return, despite experiencing damage first from Betsy, then Camille, and now - far worse - from Katrina. They love the people, the rural life, and the water. Many don't know anywhere else.
"If I can rebuild, I'll be back," says Paul Harvey, a farmer who sold cucumbers and okra from a roadside stand and has lived near Port Sulphur for almost eight decades. He, his wife, and grandson returned to sort through the boards that used to be their home.
"We can't even find the vegetable stand," says Errol Turner, his grandson, who lives in Jefferson Parish. "Everything he worked for his whole life is gone.... You can't grow nothing down here anymore."