Coast Guard Leads Post-Katrina Salvage Effort

The Coast Guard is overseeing efforts to salvage more than 2,000 boats that were damaged or sank during Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. It's a huge and expensive operation.

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Most recovery efforts in Louisiana are focused on getting residents back in their homes. But Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, is equally concerned about getting people back in their boats.

NPR's John Burnett reports those boats have to be salvaged one by one.

JOHN BURNETT reporting: The epic storm laid waste to nearly everything afloat in the waterways of southeast Louisiana: Venice Boat Harbor, Turtle Bay, Bayou La Loutre, Oyster Factory Canal, Cupid's Gap and Emmaline Pass(ph). The damage to boats is so widespread that FEMA has enlisted the Coast Guard to oversee a first of its kind operation, to salvage nearly 3,000 sunken and stranded watercraft in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

FEMA has earmarked $85 million for obstruction and vessel removal in Louisiana alone. There are boats on levees, boats in the trees, boats on the bottom, boats on boats, and boats in balls, says Charlie Rawson. He's Coast Guard commander in charge of the Louisiana boat salvage effort.

Commander CHARLES RAWSON (Coast Guard Boat Salvage Operation): Many of the vessels that we deal with were put together, and thrown together, into a ball of boats. Which may be 15 boats would be tangled together in one big mass of boats. You had to literally pick it apart like a jigsaw to figure out which ones can I pull out first. Which ones can I lift a little bit to pull the one out underneath?

BURNETT: Ground Zero for Katrina's boat tossing was Plaquemines Parish, a marshy finger of land extending into the gulf and bisected by the Mississippi River. The eye of the hurricane crossed here. Preceded by a 22-foot storm surge, it decimated the southern half of the parish, though almost everybody evacuated and only four people died.

More than 1400 vessels were ripped from their moorings, about two-thirds of those have been salvaged so far.

(Sound bite of ringing phone)

Mr. TIMMY CUBIONE(ph) (Salvage Contractor): Yeah, Joe, it's a go on 20. Okay, good deal.

BURNETT: Timmy Cubione is one of the salvage contractors working down here. He's a tall, 31 year old Cajun who lives in a white pickup with a two-way radio glued to his palm.

Mr. CUBIONE: Okay, man. Good enough. Bye-bye.

BURNETT: He charges the Coast Guard from 12,000 up to $80,000 per boat salvage. With the federal government involved, each job requires a nine-page salvage plan, and each one is different. Take the Cecilia, a 70-foot shrimp boat that was lying on the levee on its starboard haul.

Mr. CUBIONE: So, you're on soft ground because you're in Louisiana. You're on the side of a levee, so it's uneven. And you might be three miles from the furthest water point. So now, I've got to move 140 tons three miles. It presents a problem.

BURNETT: A fisherman's boat is his livelihood, and Cubione is well regarded for treating the injured vessels with care. Other salvagers haven't been so gentle, says parish president Benny Rousselle.

Mr. BENNY ROUSELLE (President, Plaquemines Parish): we have some examples of a large contractor coming on to the scene, and he salvaged these wooden boats with cables; which naturally cut the boats in half.

BURNETT: It's late one foggy afternoon at the Empire Harbor in Plaquemine's Parish, now a boat graveyard. Shrimp and oyster boats sit on blocks in various stages of decomposition. The air is heavy with the smell of mud and diesel exhaust and thick with mosquitoes. Brown pelicans glide across the brackish water patrolling for dinner. A 51-year-old Vietnamese shrimper named Fung Phan stands with his 18-year-old daughter, Ny(ph). They're anxiously watching Timmy Cubione's salvage barge, which is about to offload the remains of Fan's boat, The Captive Twan.

Mr. FUNG PHAN (Shrimp Boat Fisherman): It maybe good, I repair. No good, buy a new one.

BURNETT: If it's no good, buy a new one. If it's good, repair it.

Mr. PHAN: Yeah, have it throw away.

BURNETT: A crane gingerly lowers the ripped and mud stained haul of The Captive Twan. It's owner, in a jean jacket and sneakers, watches impassively. A huge man with Big Reg printed on his life vest directs the crane operators.

Mr. BIG REG (Crane Operator Director): Bring it by this way. Swing them over a little bit.

(Sound bite of a crane):

BURNETT: The rigging and nets are gone. The cabin is gone. A steady stream of foul black water pours from a cracked fiberglass bow. Fan estimates that his boat was worth $40,000; like, most shrimpers, he had no insurance.

So what does your dad think now?

Ms. NY PHAN (Fung Phan's Daughter): (speaking in Vietnamese)

Mr. PHAN: (speaking in Vietnamese)

Ms. PHAN: He says probably a goner. He won't be able to repair it.

BURNETT: Cubione wants to know from Phan what to do with the wreck, now suspended by nylon straps a few feet above the spongy earth.

Mr. CUBIONE: All we're trying to do is just pull the props and shafts and all that. You're not going to try to rebuild, right?

Ms. PHAN: Huh-uh. No, we're not going to.

Mr. CUBIONE: Don't even worry about putting the bow on top. Just the bow on the ground.

Unidentified Man (Boat Salvager): On the ground?

Mr. CUBIONE: Just keep the, keep the ass end up enough, so we can get the shaft and the rudder, and the prop and stuff like that.

BURNETT: Vietnamese shrimpers have thrived in Plaquemines Parish. Their work ethic and social support network are legendary. After two decades, they now control much of the shrimping industry down here. The damage wrought by Katrina is expected to drive many marginal operators out of the business. But those who know the Vietnamese shrimpers, like Fung Phan, say they will borrow, buy a new boat, and start over.

John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.

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