Noah Adams

Intracoastal Waterway Web Log


This Web log tracked NPR Senior Correspondent Noah Adams' tour of the Gulf Coast by boat as he reported on how people in the region are recovering after Hurricane Katrina. Adams has now completed his journey.

November 18, 2005

1:00 p.m.: Signing Off

We walk a few blocks in downtown New Orleans, still feeling shaky from our six--day crossing from Pensacola (the sensation is eased a bit by red beans and rice from Mother's Café, est. 1938). Kathy and John Strucken, our captains, left today at first light, and they'll cover the same distance in three days going back. I'm gratified by the chance to meet so many people on the islands and mainland communities, doing their best to cope with Katrina. They have a grand spirit, and lovely waters. I hope to see them again. next time we'll plan a slower trip, following the winds along the Gulf of Mexico.

1:00 p.m. CDT | Nov. 18, 2005 | permalink

6:00 a.m.: A New Orleans Morning

A New Orleans morning with a crisp breeze, but not nearly as strong as the one that's been coming at us on the boat across the Intracoastal Waterway on the Mississippi Sound. My face is wind burned. My eyes were dry and stinging as well, and our boat friends said the wind gets up under your sunglasses -- this means a good sailing day!

Producer Amy Walters and I have the pleasure of talking with the Lockmaster Michael O'Dowd. "Irish?" I asked. "Certainly," he said. O'Dowd has been with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for 41 years now, and his stiffest challenge came with the winds and water of Katrina. He's the boss of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Lock.

It's right where the canal enters the Mississippi. Boats and barges wanting to enter the canal, moving north toward Lake Pontchartrain, must enter the lock and wait for the water to be lowered (the Mississippi being higher than the canal). The reverse is true in the opposite direction.

We stand with Lockmaster O'Dowd on the top level of the lock station and can clearly see the problems he faced during the days of the storm and the flood. He tells the stories proudly -- someone needed to get this lock operating again. He's also proud of saving a new car that he'd bought as a present for his daughter and had hidden away on a lower level.

6:00 a.m. CDT | Nov. 18, 2005 | permalink

November 17, 2005

2:45 p.m.: New Orleans in Sight

New Orleans is in sight -- at least the tall buildings -- against the western sky, 10 miles away. We've been motoring slowly amid barge and shrimp boat traffic through the Rigolets Cut, as the Intracoastal heads into the city. The dredged channel flows through flat fields of tall grasses, and we see white egrets, pelicans, even a wild boar on one of the banks. There's little sign of hurricane damage. Then the tall container loading cranes loom into view, and several bridges. At last we've reached the Industrial Canal; it's been our goal since we set out from Pensacola six days ago.

We make a turn into the canal north toward Lake Pontchartrain, where we'll dock the boat. There's a low bridge ahead, with railroad tracks running across. The operator raises the span, and we wave out thanks as we pass.

Then the last obstacle: A highway bridge with a center section that lifts to accommodate taller ships. We can't contact the bridge tender on the VHF radio. The chart says the bottom of the span is 50 feet high. Our mast is 53 feet. But clearance really depends on the height of the channel at a given time. We slow, stop, move forward, slow again. No answer from the radio. Again forward. When you look up, it seems certain that the top of the mast will smash against the bridge, but we ease up closer and then under, with less than a foot to spare.

We tie up at a dock in industrial New Orleans, gritty and rusty to begin with, partially ruined now. When we return after dinner, National Guard troops are checking IDs nearby. The dark seems intensified by the orange flames from trash burning in barrels at the intersections, but the boat's still there. A cabin light shines inside. A single vessel at the end of a journey. Tomorrow, we'll go in search of stories about the Industrial Canal, before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina.

2:45 p.m. CDT | Nov. 17, 2005 | permalink

5:30 a.m.: Waveland, Miss.

If you left your boat before sunrise to talk with some folks at Waveland, Miss., because they had to be somewhere else soon and you thought a cup of coffee might be nice -- you wouldn't find it here. Waveland is gone, lost in the hurricane storm surge, and of all the places we've stopped along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, this is the most heartbreaking.

As we wade up on the beach, a man in a red U.S. Army Corps of Engineers windbreaker leaves his truck to come over. He says, "I'm a sailor myself, and that's the first sailboat I've seen in this harbor in two months." He and his Corps colleagues meet here on the beach every morning at 6:00 a.m. to plan the day. Their work: debris removal.

We've asked for a quick tour of Waveland, and Chris LaGard picks us up. He's a local, an aide to a U.S. congressman. Chris knows who lived in every house that was smashed. He stops at one and says, "That woman there, they still haven't found her." He fears bodies will be unearthed from the vast tangles of pilings, bricks, glass, cars, trees. There's no natural gas service as yet in Waveland because of concerns about leaks and explosions. Chris LaGard says, "I'll heat this winter by woodstove. Firewood's plenty cheap right now."

5:30 a.m. CDT | Nov. 17, 2005 | permalink

November 16, 2005
A beached casino barge along the Mississippi coast.
A beached casino barge along the Mississippi coast. · Credit: NPR

10:06 p.m.: From Biloxi to Waveland

The cold front comes flying through about 1:00 a.m.; I can hear the wind singing around the boat. At first light we go in search of diesel fuel and are helped by a man who once owned a restaurant, a gas station and a bait shop. He's willing to drive for a half hour to sell us $26 worth of fuel but seems cheerful and has hope for Biloxi's comeback.

Waveland, Miss., is our anchorage destination for sunset. It's a swing along the coast and Ship Island, where we stopped yesterday, is still in sight across the Mississippi Sound. As we leave Biloxi, the immense Beau Rivage commands the waterfront, almost all the way to Waveland. Just look back over the stern and there -- broken windows, shattered harbor -- it still stands, shining in the sun. It's a scene that would make a good opening for a science fiction film. A lovely, windy ocean, and a ravaged cityscape topped by this ghost casino, which once employed more than 3,000 people.

Along the way to Waveland the sound is empty. Then, one large Crowley freighter heading for Gulfport crosses our bow. One shrimp boat passes, trailed by gulls, pelicans and terns, harvesting the marine life churning up in its wake.

A green Intracoastal navigation buoy marked 1 shows up. It is far from the channel it was meant to mark. Someone warns us that one recent incoming ship actually hit a house submerged in the Sound nearby.

We anchor well offshore as all the docks here are still down. It's a lovely sunset that settles over what I imagine to be New Orleans to the west. The moon rises on the other side of the boat. In the morning we'll go ashore to see how Waveland's faring now two and a half months after Hurricane Katrina's arrival.

10:06 p.m. CDT | Nov. 16, 2005 | permalink

November 15, 2005
Greek immigrants dancing at their annual festival in Pensacola, FL.
Greek immigrants dance at their annual festival in Pensacola, Fla. · Credit: NPR

4:30 p.m.: Biloxi

Finally, Biloxi. We arrive from the south and have been watching the large, sandstone-colored Beau Rivage hotel and casino for more than an hour. It's quiet when we anchor, just off a city beach, near a barge belonging to the Army Corps of Engineers.

After sunset, the light from a full moon spills over some low clouds. I'm reminded of Hurricane Camille, 1969. It destroyed much of the shrimping industry established by Croatian immigrants decades ago. In the 1970s, the Vietnamese came to the Gulf Coast and bought shrimp boats and started their own processing plants.

The first night of this assignment we stopped by a Greek festival in Pensacola. There was calamari, wine and fairly wild dancing. There I met Nick Geeker, a Florida state judge and third-generation Greek. "Most of Pensacola's Greek immigrants came from the island of Skopelos," he said. The immigrants fished at first, as they did back home, but then many went into the restaurant business.

Geeker smiled and said, "They figured it was easier to cook the fish than to catch it."

4:30 p.m. CDT | Nov. 15, 2005 | permalink

8:15 a.m.: Heading to Ship Island

We're underway to a place called Ship Island, four hours west along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. The weather is expected to darken, but it's a clear morning as we start.

Then the floating oil barrels appear, about a dozen, spread out over the water ahead, almost as if arranged in a pattern. We've left the ICW channel to cut off some distance and here's trouble: We barely miss a barrel as we correct course. One explanation? The barrels could be marking a submerged shipwreck.

The first day out on this trip I heard the term "square grouper." As in "I caught one." A square grouper (I had to ask) is a floating bale of marijuana lost or left for pickup by drug smugglers.

8:15 a.m. CDT | Nov. 15, 2005 | permalink

November 14, 2005

3:15 p.m.: Pascagoula, Miss.

Waterside at the huge Northrop Grumman shipbuilding facility. We tie up alongside an old U.S. Navy berthing barge that the shipyard has brought in to house their hurricane-displaced workers. More than 80 men and women are aboard, close to their jobs but far from their families. We'll go onboard for interviews and red beans and rice in the cafeteria.

3:15 p.m. CDT | Nov. 14, 2005 | permalink

2:00 p.m.: Mississippi Sound

Out in the Mississippi Sound, as we continue west along the Intracoastal channel, the dolphins start playing with us, both ahead off the bow and behind in and out of the wake. They rise in twinned arcs, elegantly. But if you scramble to find your camera in time, they seem to know it and move away.

Two nights back at a marina in Orange Beach, Ala., a woman whose home is her boat (a "live-aboard") told us about listening to the dolphins chatter and sing. Her boat is wood, most of the cabin is below the waterline, and the dolphin melodies would come though clear and loud.

2:00 p.m. CDT | Nov. 14, 2005 | permalink

Shipping containers tossed ashore by Katrina still have cars lashed onto them.
Shipping containers tossed ashore by Katrina still have cars lashed onto them. · Credit: NPR

11:45 a.m.: Bayou La Batre

We arrive at Bayou La Batre, a shrimping village on the Alabama mainland. It's known to have been an inspiration for the Tom Hanks movie Forest Gump (the scenes were actually shot in South Carolina.) Now Bayou La Batre is known as a place of destruction. From a mile away you can tell something awful happened. The pine trees are brown, their roots poisoned by salt. And you see the white masts rising at improbable angles from boats that were thrown on shore and back into the woods. One vessel even had about a dozen cars still lashed to the tops of shipping containers.

Our boat moves slowly to the crumbling dock, and another movie comes to mind. My colleague Amy Walters brings it up, saying "This reminds me of the scene in…" And I say Apocalypse Now. But three men on shore were pleased to have visitors. They were repairing a building. "It's a crab house. They boil them here, pick them in the next room." Katrina's waters had reached the ceiling.

11:45 a.m. CDT | Nov. 14, 2005 | permalink

November 13, 2005

7:00 p.m.: Dauphin Island

Dauphin Island is quiet and somehow tired. It's a barrier island, hard hit by Katrina's storm surge. I sat awhile with a local man fishing after work. "Ground mullet," he said he was catching, small fish that would cut into tasty fillets. And then at the dock beside him, an ocean-going research vessel pulled up. A scientist on board showed me a two-foot-wide yellow robot device that is "flown" deep under water to check for pipeline damage. It has wings and looks like a small manta ray. Just another creature in the waters of the Gulf.

At anchor, after sunset, after dinner: Someone once said, about the process of anchoring a boat, "Looks like you're a big dog circling around looking for a place to lay down." Our spot is a few hundred yards from the dock, close enough to hear who's good and who's awful at the karaoke bar across the water. Music and slow boating seem to go together on the Gulf Coast. This is the final few days for the Frank Brown International Songwriter's Festival, staged at restaurants and bars in several communities. Mr. Brown was for 28 years the night watchman at a famous place called the Flora-Bama, right on the state line.

7:00 p.m. CDT | Nov. 13, 2005 | permalink

A shrimp boat that had a pirate look to it along the Intracoastal Waterway.
At Dauphin Island, Noah spots a shrimp boat with a "pirate" look to it. · Credit: NPR

1:45 p.m.: Dauphin Island

We arrived at Dauphin Island (it's pronounced DAW-fin) after passing under the center arch of a graceful bridge that connects this barrier strand to the rest of Alabama. Mobile Bay was empty water, splendid with dolphin and pelican life… and with the widely spaced oil drilling rigs, looking like Stars Wars machines. I saw one supply helicopter making its rounds.

We left the Intracoastal channel to get closer to a shrimp boat that had a pirate look to it. The rigging was frayed, the hull, in need of more blue paint, displayed the name "St. Peter, Pensacola, FL." We tried to raise the St. Peter on our VHF radio (I like seafaring books and finally have the chance to use the term "raise.") But there was no answer. Got closer.

Was there even anybody aboard? Then the boat started moving away. A Vietnamese woman came to the rail. We smiled and yelled but couldn't communicate and soon waved farewell and returned to course.

1:45 p.m. CDT | Nov. 13, 2005 | permalink

10:00 a.m.: Mobile Bay

Birds take a breather along the Intracoastal Waterway. · Credit: NPR

Entering Mobile Bay. The hurricane-force winds of Katrina reached this far east into Alabama. We emerge from the sunlit path of the Intracoastal Waterway into fog as the water widens.

Within the bay we travel a narrow channel marked by red buoys on the right and green on the left. We meet small fishing boats, a large yacht or two, and husky tugboats pushing barge-loads of coal.

Our route on the charts measures 180 nautical miles (a nautical mile is 1.15 highway miles). We got on the boat in Pensacola, Fla., after visiting shipyards to see boats damaged not by Katrina but by Hurricane Ivan a year before, and we'll continue to talk with the shipyard and marina folks and fishermen and scientists as we explore our way west into New Orleans.

10:00 a.m. CDT | Nov. 15, 2005 | permalink