Riding Katrina: How St. Bernard Shrimper Survived
Three years ago, Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast. At the time, Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish was one of the worst-hit areas. Now, about half the people who lived there have returned.
St. Bernard sits just to the east of New Orleans. It's surrounded by water, which has been its lifeblood for fishing but also been its undoing.
When Katrina hit, 95 percent of the parish was flooded under anywhere from 8 to 21 feet of water.
Because of the more visible trauma to New Orleans, the community was largely forgotten, but writer Ken Wells is trying to make sure it is remembered.
Wells covered Katrina for The Wall Street Journal. He got to St. Bernard Parish nine days after the storm, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency had just arrived. He says the small fishing villages looked like they had been carpet bombed.
Wells tells the story of those who rode out the storm in his new book, The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous. One of those pirates is a shrimp-boat captain named Ricky Robin.
The Mister Go
Robin is on the deck of the Lil' Rick, a 56-foot-long steel shrimp trawler that he built himself. He started welding it in high school shop class.
Robin has eyes the color of the sea. In blue jeans and white rubber shrimping boots, he's 5 feet, 6 inches of energy and muscle.
"C'mon this boat," he says. "'Cuz I gotta go catch some shrimp!"
Robin can see the shrimp. They are bright points of light on his sonar.
"This is shrimp we lookin' at here — this is schools of shrimp," he says. "Nobody put his net here but me!"
Robin is trawling in a shipping channel.
"We in the Mister Go here," he says, referring to the nickname for the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.
During Katrina, the storm surge punched through long stretches of the earthen levees along the Mister Go, flooding the parish.
Robin's family roots here go back 250 years. His ancestors were here when this waterway was land.
"This actually was a swamp," he says. "We going through a swamp. I'm workin' on top of where my grandfathers walked. They was hunting on this very spot where I'm catching shrimp. Can you imagine?"
Robin lets out his 50-foot net. He'll be trawling at 2 knots.
One thing about Katrina: It's been really good for shrimping.
Robin says, "After the blow — it wakes everything up."
After trawling for a couple of hours, it's time to pull in the haul — and it's a stunner.
The net comes up bulging with shrimp, as hungry porpoises swim alongside.
"I would say I'm in them. I know I'm in them. I know they gonna be a little while and they all belong to the Lil' Rick," he says. "Look like about 1,500 pounds of shrimp on the drag."
After the shrimp are sorted and rinsed, they're put on ice in the hold.
'When The Saints Come Marching In'
Before Katrina hit, Robin had tied down the Lil' Rick in a canal. It's a 70-ton trawler, but it was getting tossed around wildly — in winds gusting up to 140 mph.
At the height of the storm, Robin climbed up on the rigging to lower the booms so the boat would be more stable.
"While I was up there, I was fussing — fussing and raising heck. Just fussing at that hurricane. I was furious out of my mind — angry," he says. "I dropped them booms down and said let it blow — blow, blow, blow — and let me tell you that she did. She blew, blew, blew, blew."
Robin and other fishermen ended up rescuing many people flooded out of their homes and bringing them onboard. He poured coffee, heated up biscuits and gumbo for the survivors. He had the kids climb down below for safety into the hold where he stores shrimp.
"Thirty, 40 people that slept on this boat that first night," Robin says. "Hundreds of people just lined up on the bayou, floating on boats. You look at the movie Titanic when all those people was crying.
"You know that's disturbing to hear these people crying. Could you imagine hearing these people crying for four, five days and it never did stop?" he asks.
So Robin had an idea. He got out his trumpet and played "When the Saints Come Marching In."
"I play the horn to calm 'em down and make 'em see a little laugh come out of these poor people that was crying," he says. "I had 'em dancing for a little while there."
Robin says he gets bad feeling when he remembers the hurricane.
"I get bad flashbacks ... I shake 'em off," he says. "My biggest flashback is thinkin' about my daddy. He committed suicide, put a rope on his neck and committed suicide — three months after [the hurricane] — I lose my daddy. Y'know, it's just one of them — it added to the problem we already had."
Despite the loss of so much all around him, or maybe because of that, Robin is proudly wearing a gray T-shirt that says, "No Place Like Home: St. Bernard Parish."
One thing about the storm, Robin says, there's a lot less competition out on the water now.
"Some of your best fishermen's the only ones left," he says. "Now's the time to start."
But the economics are lousy now with diesel $4 a gallon and shrimp prices at rock bottom.
In the 1970s, they got about $6 or $7 a pound. Now, they get less than a quarter of that.
The Good Pirate
Wells says Robin and the others who've come back to St. Bernard are fighting to save a way of life.
"A day like today ... he catches 1,500 pounds of shrimp but he's gonna go to the dock now and get a dollar and a half a pound," Wells says. "And where you and I live those same shrimp are showing up in the supermarket for $16.50 a pound.
"Somebody's making money but it's not the Gulf shrimper. And this — it's an endangered species," he says.
"The shrimper himself is an endangered species," Robin chimes in.
"That's right — and the culture that in a strange way ... it's sort of knitted into the fabric of the landscape," Wells says. "Once it's gone you can't put it back together again."
Ricky says half the people who were originally from St. Bernard are no longer here.
"The good people — all the good people," he says. "The good, you know, hard-down family people is gone."
On Friday morning, Robin says he's watching the new storm Gustav closely as it heads toward the Gulf Coast. His wife and her family will evacuate Saturday, but Robin is staying put on the Lil' Rick. He'll seek harbor on Friday night, ride out whatever comes and then after the storm, he says, "I'll come out here and get these shrimp."
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