Can Bayou La Batre Bounce Back?

Two boats stranded inland by Hurricane Katrina. i i

Two of the two dozen boats still stranded inland after Hurricane Katrina hit Bayou le Batre. Tracy Wahl, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Tracy Wahl, NPR
Two boats stranded inland by Hurricane Katrina.

Two of the two dozen boats still stranded inland after Hurricane Katrina hit Bayou le Batre.

Tracy Wahl, NPR
Bubba Bryant puts his palm to his forehead at the blessing of the fleet.

"Fishing industry doesn't look good," Bubba Bryant says. "But maybe we’ll get lucky. Got to be optimistic, got to be able to laugh or cry." Tracy Wahl, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Tracy Wahl, NPR
A sign on a fishing boat asks God to bless Katrina victims and U.S. troops. i i

A sign on a fishing boat offers a prayer for a nation's struggle at home and abroad. Tracy Wahl, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Tracy Wahl, NPR
A sign on a fishing boat asks God to bless Katrina victims and U.S. troops.

A sign on a fishing boat offers a prayer for a nation's struggle at home and abroad.

Tracy Wahl, NPR

In Bayou La Batre, Ala., there's an old saying that there are four seasons: shrimp, oyster, crab and fish. The fishing village south of Mobile revolves around the Gulf of Mexico and its bounty.

Mali Hoat's Story

Mali Hoat with several of her children in a FEMA trailer. i i

Mali Hoat with some of the reasons she's back in Bayou le Batre. Tracy Wahl, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Tracy Wahl, NPR
Mali Hoat with several of her children in a FEMA trailer.

Mali Hoat with some of the reasons she's back in Bayou le Batre.

Tracy Wahl, NPR

Mali Hoat lives in a FEMA camper-trailer with her six children. Her story is a complicated one.

As a teenager, she fled her war-town homeland of Cambodia. After living at a refugee camp in Thailand, she escaped to the United States.

For years, she picked crabs in Bayou la Batre, working long hours and getting paid by the pounds of crab meat she could produce each day. It was barely enough to support her growing family, but it was easier than life had been in her homeland.

Then a Cambodian friend in Washington state told her she could make good money there as a card dealer in a casino. So she put her small children in the care of an adult daughter in Alabama and crossed the country in search of higher wages.

When Katrina hit, she saw the pictures on CNN and rushed home to find her children. She left everything behind in Washington, including her job. She was denied unemployment benefits.

She relies on a local church for food and clothes. Sometimes, she says, she wants to give up. After Katrina, she says, life is like her homeland again.

But stirred by Hurricane Katrina, the sea rose up against Bayou La Batre last fall, taking half its homes and nearly all available work. And now the town of 2,300 is at a crossroads.

A third of the population are immigrants from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, relatively recent additions to a core of families who have lived off the Bayou for generations. All cling to the hope that a new shrimp season brings. But the seafood industry is suffering. Imported catches are driving down prices for shrimp, in particular. And the rising cost of fuel has offered yet another challenge.

Bayou La Batre's future may lie more with tourism than fishing. But most residents aren't thinking much about the future. They're still trying to cope in Katrina's aftermath.

Before Katrina, Bayou La Batre's shrimp fleet was estimated at 300 strong. Then the storm shoved the bayou over its banks, carrying with it nearly a third of the boats moored here. At least two dozen remain aground, rusting amid the trees of the forested area that halted their unexpected inland voyage. The boats belong to Vietnamese fishermen who don't have insurance, or the means to hire cranes to lift the vessels back into the bayou.

Debris from the storm remains piled along the town's piers... broken pieces of fiberglass hull, fish net and molding mattresses. The city docks are in ruin.

It's a sad fate for what was once a busy maritime hub. With its shrimp fleet, seafood processors and shipbuilders, Bayou La Batre pumped more than $400 million dollars into the region's economy.

But the poverty rate here is twice the national average. Many people barely get by, and that's especially true for seasonal seafood workers.

Now, even some crabbers who were on their own before the storm have been turned down for small business loans to get started again. They lacked records to prove what their operations were worth. Discouraged by the red tape and untrained for other pursuits, many of the Asian immigrants are competing for limited manual work in other people's operations.

Ever since the French built a gun battery along the bayou here in the 18th century, Bayou La Batre has seen change at the hands of nature. Storms seem to mark turning points for the town. It was known after the Civil War as a coastal resort with fine hotels and even an opera house. It had a large French-speaking population.

Then came damaging hurricanes in 1906 and 1916, and the resorts did not survive. Fishing brought it back, but now the seafood processing plants that were the town's largest employer have shut down. And prospects for a rebirth of that industry are not good.

So where is the town headed now? Perhaps, in a way, back to its past.

Even before the hurricane, city leaders were looking for ways to lessen the town's dependence on the seafood industry. The city council chambers were lined with sketches of a developer's plan to turn the town into a French-style village along the Bayou. Those plans are on hold, but some believe they may be just what Bayou La Batre needs.

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