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.