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Diane Wilson: A Shrimper on Katrina

“This ain’t a Forrest Gump film about a shrimper getting rich after a hurricane. This is about shrimpers and their industry sinking. From Mississippi, to Alabama to the Louisiana Gulf Coast, the shrimping industry is sunk (or sinking) and this time it doesn’t need any help from rising fuel prices or imported shrimp driving down the price or beleaguered bays fighting to survival along the petrochemical corridor. Nope. All it took was a Category 4 storm named Katrina.”

One Gulf Intercoastal Waterway in Biloxi is lined with wrecked vessels as far as the eye could see; some buckled up on the canal, some sunk, then some boats smashed together after having broken loose and swirled down the bayou. One captain had to keep his engine roaring for hours to keep ten boats from taking him under.

The shrimpers who made it to shore and survived say they face an uncertain future. The storm all but wiped out the large-scale packing houses and processing plants in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana where most American shrimp are caught. In Bayou La Batre in Alabama where seafood is the economic lifeblood, Hurricane Katrina stopped it from pumping. On Wednesday, trucks hauled away millions of dollars worth of rotting shrimp from a flooded processing plant.

Then too, there’s plenty of questions. Why go out and catch shrimp when there is no dock to unload and no port from Louisiana all the way to Alabama? And with bay shrimpers (we wont even discuss Gulf shrimpers) already paying $2.30 a gallon for diesel on boats requiring l00-150 gallons per day (and talk of another 30 cent hike) how could they make a living with shrimp the price it was 30 years ago?

For some shrimpers, those questions are moot. They lost their boats, homes, docks, boats slips, and in some cases, their lives. It is uncertain just how many fishermen were killed riding it out on their vessels. One marine economist compared the devastation in the Gulf to how the tsunami destroyed the fishing industry in the Indian Ocean. His prediction: it’s going to decimate the industry. But many fishermen don’t need to look that far if they can remember Hurricane Carla in the fall of l961 when the white shrimp crop in Louisiana was reduced by 61 percent –and that for a storm that hit the Texas gulf coast and didn’t touch the Louisiana fleet.

Most shrimpers say they feel like they’re caught in the middle with nowhere to go, but that middle feeling will become a down right tragedy in the already Third Act of A Bad Play if the resources and know-how that finally come to the beleaguered Gulf Coast don’t include something besides a hand-out and a dry hanky at the food bank for the fishermen and the fisheries and the bays of the Gulf Coast.

For starters, what’s with Hurricane Katrina? In l969 when Hurricane Camille made and fall it was a Category 5 storm with winds clocked at l90 miles per hour, yet, Katrina, at 140 mph and a Category 4 storm, imposed a much larger impact. The most destructive factor with Hurricane Katrina was the wind driven pounding waves on top of the storm surge. Then too there was the 1900 square miles of wetlands that had disappeared from the area since the l930’s when– lo and about the time!– oil and gas fields were developed in the gulf and petrochemical refineries and factories were positioned on the fragile landscape with the help of elaborate system of levees, dams, spillways and other installations to divert the rivers flow to the Gulf. So the islands shrank and the marshes, that normally absorb storm water, disappeared before our very Southern eyes. And for every 2.7 miles of wetland loss there is a simple fact associated with it: a one-foot increase of storm surge. In other words, wetlands act like a speed bump.

So how do you keep a hurricane storm surge from thundering over a beloved but degraded landscape? You let the Mississippi River flow over it more often to replenish the sediments and make it a living marsh. Such a restoration would have benefits other than surge control. It would bolster the Gulf wetlands which are critical nursery areas for a wide range of commercially important marine species such as shrimp, blue crab, oysters, redfish, menhaden and weakfish.

A recent report in the New York Times noted that a few small efforts are being made to mimic what the river would do naturally to restore sediments along the coast, but the overall impression was that it wasn’t likely. I’ll cost too much.

The damage from Katrina is already estimated at 9 billion and the death toll is still an unknown, yet restoring wetlands and reducing a hurricane’s impact on the Gulf Coast ‘cost too much’. Perhaps before all the thinking heads of the Katrina aftermath finish their coffee, they might have a finer discussion on costs and super storms and how our move into the 21st century won’t jeopardize the very citizens and planet we are seeking to enrich.

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