In Marshlands South of New Orleans, Katrina's Destruction Threatens already Tenuous Existence

Hurricane Katrina ripped through this narrow toe of land at the easternmost edge of the Louisiana boot, where oystermen, shrimpers, river pilots and oil-rig workers cling to existence like snails to the marsh grass. It is a place that lives or dies by the water.

EMPIRE, La. — Plaquemines Parish is about 65 percent water, like the human body. It is hard to imagine that something made up of such a fluid element can be so broken, and yet it is.

Hurricane Katrina ripped through this narrow toe of land at the easternmost edge of the Louisiana boot, where oystermen, shrimpers, river pilots and oil-rig workers cling to existence like snails to the marsh grass. It is a place that lives or dies by the water.

On Aug. 29, Plaquemines nearly drowned. At least three of its residents did, and that toll could increase sharply when searchers begin raising the estimated 100 boats overturned and submerged in the parish's patchwork of canals and bayous.

As he navigates his 24-foot skiff this week around the twisted trawlers and upturned keels choking the once bustling Empire Harbor, third-generation oysterman Mitchell Jurisich's mind conjures images of another national tragedy.

"This is ground subzero," he says as he passes two 120-foot menhaden boats, parallel parked on the silt-covered lanes of Route 23. "This is worse than ground zero."


While attention has been focused on the chaos in New Orleans, its marshbound neighbor to the southeast struggles to maintain its tenuous grip on existence. With another hurricane, Rita, roiling the Gulf, the people of lower Plaquemines rumble across battered levees and putter through oil-fouled bayous, only to find what a long road to recovery lies ahead after Katrina.


The parish of about 26,000 got its name from the American Indian word for "persimmon." Each December, the area celebrates its citrus industry with a festival at 19th century Fort Jackson.

Now, grove after grove stands ruined, naked of fruit, the brittle lower branches washed brown by the raging water. But at least the trees still stand.

Belle Chasse, a few minutes' drive across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans, weathered Katrina with relatively minor wind damage. Businesses there began coming back to life within three weeks of the storm.

But a drive south on Route 23 is a lesson in demolition.

A few miles south of Belle Chasse, houses are stripped of their shingles and roofs, but still in place. At Port Sulphur, many houses are still intact, but they have been lifted from their slabs and foundations and dumped by the roadside -- held back only by nets of downed power lines.

By the Doolut Canal at Empire, it is hard to imagine that these piles of sticks and bricks were once people's homes.

A sign along the road lures gamblers with the promise of a $12 million lottery prize, but there is no convenience store to back it up. A box truck hangs in mid-air, impaled on the curved limb of a live oak. In another tree, a dead cow.

Plaquemines was devastated once before, when state leaders dynamited a levee at Caernarvon to save New Orleans during the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. A succession of hurricanes -- Camille, Betsy, Hilda -- followed.

But Katrina was the worst by far.

At the Empire boat yard, the nation's third-largest seafood port, the so-called "safe harbor" where many left their boats or rode out the storm looks more like a scrap yard. An oyster boat dangles 20 feet in the air, its fiberglass hull gored by pilings in three places. Jack-up barges, boxy vessels that plant their steel feet on the bottom to service oil rigs, lie upended in the grass beside the remains of fishing camps that washed hundreds of yards out of the marshes.

At the yard's entrance, a battered fiberglass trawler with a Vietnamese name sits across the access road. The shrimper groans and creaks as a barge-mounted crane hoists a 47-foot aluminum oyster boat off its buckled bow.

"This is non-governmental," John Tesvich says as he watches his white vessel swing in the air. "The government's not here. FEMA and everybody, they're not here. It amazes me and everybody else, how it's just like we're forgotten."

A few miles south, just above the town of Buras, a private contractor tired of waiting for outside help, uses a mechanical shovel to build an earthen dike around a breach in the back levee that tore out a four-lane section of Route 23. After a week of scraping and digging, the dike is barely a couple of feet higher than the water.

But it is holding.

------The oil refineries that sprouted here earned the parish the nickname "Kuwait." Katrina has turned one of the parish's industries against another.

A 100-foot breach in the levee along Bay Vacherie ruptured a Shell Oil pipeline, fouling some of the area's most productive oyster beds with a gooey mess that turned the marsh grass black to the high-tide mark. Containment booms meander along the grass lines like an ungainly orange and white snake.

As Jurisich motors slowly through the slick, a blackened bird floats by, riding unusually low in the water. It is a grebe, known locally as a "hell diver" for its prolonged plunges in search of food.

"He don't have to dive to get to hell now," Jurisich says with a rueful laugh. "It's a shame to see that."

Louisiana leads the nation in oyster production, 250 million in-shell pounds, accounting for about 40 percent of the total harvest. That harvest pumped $288 million into the state's economy last year, creating 10,000 jobs.

That was before Katrina.

Between the battering surf and the toxic runoff being drained out of New Orleans and into Lake Pontchartrain, state officials have declared two-thirds of the beds off limits. It could be weeks before the oysters can be sampled, months before the beds can reopen, years before the oysters will have rebounded enough for harvest.

Mike Voisin, chairman of the state oyster task force, says he thinks underutilized beds to the west can be coaxed into boosting production back up to 50 percent within a year. To get back to full production, it likely will take four years and $1 billion to replace a ruined hatchery, rebuild a demolished lab and refurbish untold acres of ravaged bottom, he says.

Jurisich is hopeful it won't take that long.

Several times since the storm, he has been out to his Plaquemines beds, tapping the bottom with a bamboo pole. Sometimes, the pole finds only mush, a sure sign the beds are silted over; but just as often, he hits something solid, meaning the limestone and crushed-shell cultch to which the oysters attach themselves has not washed away.

Using a pair of metal tongs, he rakes a pile of oysters from the bottom. Many of the shells are specked with tiny red dots, about the size of a pen point.

This is spat. Katrina has forced the oysters to reproduce early.

"There's still some life," he says. "As long as there's life, there's hope. We can rebound."

But even if the beds were to open tomorrow, many here would not be able to go out.

Ronnie Kennair stands in chest-deep water, pressing an epoxy-smeared piece of plywood against the bottom of an oyster boat that is jammed, bow first, into the wharf. Inside the hatch, his 71-year-old father, Dickie, is past his waist in diesel as he tries to pull the board tight with ropes to plug a foot-long hole in the Galeb -- Croatian for "seagull."

The younger Kennair hopes the patch will hold long enough for him to pump out the bilge and get the vessel to dry dock.

"I've got 25 years in that boat," he says, wiping a brown-stained arm across his forehead. "Luck of the draw."


For the immediate future, many of Plaquemines' residents are in exile.

In Belle Chasse, several shrimpers gather in a parking lot beneath an office building miles from the water. They have come to commiserate and to drown their sorrows.

"See the pain medication?" Kenneth Mareno, a misty-eyed 52-year-old with a grip like a professional wrestler, says as he hoists a bottle of Budweiser.

These men live in Boothville, the next-to-last settlement before Plaquemines disappears beneath the Gulf of Mexico. This gathering is about the most tangible evidence that a place called Boothville still exists.

Mareno's trailer is a wrecked shell. His 20-foot fiberglass flat boat, the Dixie Twister, is on the bottom, its 150 horsepower Mercury outboard likely ruined.

Mike Dardar, a 49-year-old who had a chunk of his left ear bitten off in a bar fight, doesn't even know where his boat is. As for his house, half of it's on the levee. The other half, Lord only knows.

He's living in a friend's garage.

Despite all the heartache, the long hours, the skyrocketing fuel costs and plummeting shrimp prices, they would go back in a heartbeat.

"Ain't no ifs, ands or buts about it," says Dardar, who's been on shrimp boats since he was 6. "I'm going to fight for what I've got. I ain't got much."

Mareno rode out Katrina below the Empire Bridge in a 40-foot crew boat. He's not about to run now.

"I'm Aquarius, a water bearer," says Mareno. "I love the water, what I do for a living. I can do carpenter work, but I prefer being on the water.

"It's what I do."


EDITOR'S NOTE: Allen G. Breed is the AP's Southeast regional writer, based in Raleigh, N.C.

Source: Associated Press