Riding Katrina: How St. Bernard Shrimper Survived
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Three years ago today, Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast. And today, we'll visit one of the worst-hit areas, Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish. About half of the people who lived there have come back.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
St. Bernard sits just to the east of New Orleans. It's surrounded by water, the water that's been its lifeblood for fishing, but also its undoing. When Katrina hit, 95 percent of the parish was flooded under anywhere from eight to 21 feet of water. Because of the more visible trauma to New Orleans, St. Bernard was largely forgotten. Last week, I drove through what's left of the parish with a man who's trying to make sure we remember, writer Ken Wells.
Mr. KEN WELLS (Writer): This is one of the houses that was brought back after the storm. This house is 100 years old. And you see, they jacked it up on those 17-foot pilings. It had been actually picked up and moved from the foundation by the storm.
BLOCK: It's just hovering there.
Ken Wells covered Katrina for The Wall Street Journal, got to St. Bernard Parish nine days after the storm. FEMA had just arrived. He says the small fishing villages looked like they had been carpet-bombed.
Ken Wells tells the story of those who rode out the storm here in his new book, "The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous." And he's brought us to meet one of those pirates, a shrimp boat captain named Ricky Robin.
Mr. RICKY ROBIN (Shrimp Boat Captain): I don't know when you going to be coming off this ship here. I hope you got your clothes with y'all...
Mr. WELLS: Hey, buddy.
Mr. ROBIN: My partner.
Mr. WELLS: Good to see you, man.
Mr. ROBIN: Every time I read that book, I start crying. This man done got everything to the tee.
BLOCK: Ricky Robin is on the deck of the Lil' Rick - it's a 56-foot long steel shrimp trawler that he built himself. He started welding it in high school shop class.
Ricky has eyes the color of the sea. In blue jeans and white rubber shrimping boots, he's five feet six of energy and muscle.
Mr. ROBIN: Come on this boat because we got to go catch some shrimp.
Mr. WELLS: Okay, great.
(Soundbite of engine starting)
BLOCK: In his book, Ken Wells writes about how Ricky Robin rode out Katrina on this boat - a terrifying time, the storm way stronger that he expected. But he made it, saved his boat and used that boat to save many people. We'll hear that story in a little bit. But first, we've got some shrimp to catch. Ricky Robin can see them, bright points of light on his sonar.
Mr. ROBIN: This is shrimp we looking at here, this is schools of shrimp. Nobody put his net here but me.
BLOCK: Ricky Robin is trawling today in a shipping channel.
Mr. ROBIN: We in the Mr.Go here.
BLOCK: The Mr.Go, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. During Katrina, the storm surge punched through long stretches of the earthen levees along the Mr.Go, flooding the parish.
Ricky Robin's family roots here go back 250 years. His ancestors were here when this waterway was land.
Mr. ROBIN: This actually was a swamp. We're going through a swamp. I'm working on top of where my grandfathers walked. They was hunting on this very spot where I'm catching shrimp, you know, could you imagine?
BLOCK: Ricky Robin lets out his 50-foot net. He'll be trawling at two knots. One thing about Katrina, it's been really good for shrimping. Ricky says after the blow, it wakes everything up.
We trawl for a couple of hours, then it's time to pull in the haul. And it's a stunner. The net comes up bulging with shrimp, as hungry porpoises swim alongside.
Mr. ROBIN: I would say I'm in them. I know I'm in them. I know they're gonna be a little while and they all belong to the Lil' Rick. Look like about 1,500 pounds of shrimp on the drag.
BLOCK: That's a sweet catch. After the shrimp are sorted and rinsed, they're put on ice in the hold. And I talk with Ricky Robin about what he went through during Katrina. He had tied down the Lil' Rick in a canal. It's a 70-ton trawler, but it was getting tossed around wildly in winds gusting up to 140 miles an hour.
At the height of the storm, Ricky climbed up on the rigging to lower the booms so the boat would be more stable.
Mr. ROBIN: While I was up there, I was just fussing, fussing and raising heck. Just fussing at that hurricane. I was furious out of my mind, angry. I dropped them booms down and said let it blow, blow, blow, blow. And let me tell you, that she did. She blew, blew, blew, blew.
BLOCK: Ricky Robin and other fishermen ended up rescuing many people flooded out of their homes, bringing them on board. Ricky poured coffee, heated up biscuits and gumbo for the survivors. He had the kids climb down below for safety into the hold where he stores shrimp.
Mr. ROBIN: Thirty, 40 people that slept on this boat that first night.
BLOCK: Right here?
Mr. ROBIN: Hundreds of people just lined up on the bayou, floating on boats. You know, you look at the movie "Titanic" when all these people was crying. You know that's disturbing to hear these people crying. Could you imagine hearing people crying for four, five days and never did stop?
BLOCK: So Ricky had an idea. He got out his trumpet.
Mr. ROBIN: I played the horn to calm them down and got them, make them - see a little laugh come out of these poor people that was crying. I had them dancing for a little while there.
BLOCK: And this is what he played.
(Soundbite of song "When the Saints Go Marching In")
Mr. ROBIN: I get flashbacks now from the hurricane. I get bad flashbacks - not bad, I shake them off. My biggest flashback is thinking about my daddy. He committed suicide, put a rope on his neck, committed suicide. Three months after, I lose my daddy. You know, it's just one of them - it added to more problem we already had.
BLOCK: Despite all this, the loss of so much all around him, despite that, or maybe because of that, Ricky Robin is proudly wearing a gray T-shirt that says, no place like home, St. Bernard Parish.
Writer Ken Wells grew up in Louisiana bayou country, and he knows exactly what that means.
Mr. WELLS: I remember being in New York City and having a, you know, a reasonable conversation with someone who said, you know, they just need to relocate all those people and get them out of here. Why are these people living in a hurricane alley? Well, I was in San Francisco during the 1989 earthquake, and no one seriously suggested, well, you know, San Francisco sits on the San Andreas Fault, let's move it to Modesto.
BLOCK: So Ricky Robin stays, but most of the fleet has gone.
Mr. ROBIN: Some of your best fishermen's the only ones left. Now's the time to start.
BLOCK: But the economics are lousy now, with diesel $4 a gallon and shrimp prices at rock bottom. In the '70s, they got about $6 or $7 a pound. Now, they get less than a quarter of that.
The writer Ken Wells says Ricky Robin and the others who have come back to St. Bernard are fighting to save a way of life.
Mr. WELLS: I mean, what a magnificent day. We trawl for two hours, he catches 1,500 pounds of shrimp. But he's going to go to the dock now and get a dollar and a half a pound. And where you and I live, those same shrimp are showing up in the supermarket for $16.50 a pound.
Somebody's making money but it's not the Gulf shrimper. And these - it's an endangered species. And we're talking about...
Mr. ROBIN: The shrimper himself is an endangered species.
Mr. WELLS: That's right. And the culture, in a strange way, it's knitted into the fabric of the landscape. Once it's gone, you can't put it back together again.
Mr. ROBIN: Half the people that was original from here are not here. The good people, you know, hard down family people's gone. Most of the people that's around here now, they don't care about nothing. They don't want to help themselves. They're looking for handouts. And why look for handouts? Get your lead out your goddamn ass. Go throw that net in the water. Go catch you some shrimp. Go catch you some fish. Go catch you some crabs, and put some money on the table. We're fishermen, that's what we're supposed to do.
BLOCK: I talked to Ricky Robin by phone this morning. He's closely watching the new storm, Gustav, as it heads toward the Gulf Coast. His wife and her family will evacuate tomorrow, but Ricky is staying put on the Lil' Rick. He'll seek harbor tonight, ride out whatever comes, and after the storm, he says, I'll come out here and get these shrimp.
On our Web site, you can see photos of our day on the Lil' Rick and read an excerpt from Ken Wells' book, "The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous." That's at npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
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