After the Storm
Six years after Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, we cruise from Louisiana to Alabama to see if the area has recovered.
Starting a boat trip with a ride in a Dodge pickup is odd perhaps. But then, the tour it facilitated sorta set the tone for the rest of that sunny day this past April. Vice president of Trinity Yachts Billy Smith was at the helm of the Dodge. PMY’s creative director and photographer for the trip Aimee Colon occupied a window seat aft, with the window zooped down for photo ops. And I rode shotgun with a notebook in hand and a stunned expression on my face.
Pontchartrain Park—the “Mocha Mayberry” of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina and one of the first planned black middle-class suburbs in the Jim Crow South—was a sight to behold. Six years after the storm’s landfall on August 29, 2005, an event of such significance that Douglas Brinkley calls it “The Great Deluge” in his book of the same name, it remained a wreck. Indeed, the doors of many of its decaying ranch-style homes still bore spray-painted cadaver-dog clearance symbols left by search-and-rescue workers.
Smith figured the tour would lend some perspective to the mission Coln and I were on: Assess the Gulf Coast’s Post-Katrina recovery by cruising its shores from New Orleans to Alabama. The floodwaters that had inundated Trinity’s New Orleans shipyard had also inundated Pontchartrain Park, just across the street. And both places had endured chaos as a result. “Over there on the Danzinger Bridge,” Smith pointed, as we exited the suburb and headed for the shipyard, “there was a big shootout that first week after Katrina. Bunch of guys tryin’ to move in and take over. Good thing the National Guard had 50-caliber machine guns and Humvees.”
Trinity hung tough though. After tracking down most of its employees, giving each one of them an emergency cash payment of $1,500, and then establishing a temporary on-the-job community with more than 100 mobile homes, the company actually grew, doubling its workforce to 1,000 employees and its yacht contracts to 24 by 2008. “Then the recession hit,” Smith said ruefully, “and things got difficult again.”
Difficult indeed. As we strolled around the shipyard we saw only a couple of yachts in build and two in the water. Although Smith told us Trinity’s second shipyard, purchased on a handshake just a week after the storm and 85 miles to the east in Gulfport, Mississippi, was much busier by comparison, the company was still down to 800 workers and seven yacht contracts, with military and commercial projects taking up the slack.
“Not exactly a rosy picture,” Coln commented as we departed Trinity in our rental car bound for the Southern Yacht Club on Lake Pontchartrain. A new Cruisers 48 Cantius awaited us there, courtesy of Cruisers Yachts and its Florida-based dealership, Galati Yacht Sales. Just thinking about the 48 was enough to boost my spirits.
“Ever have barbecued shrimp?” I asked Coln, a Gulf Coast first-timer.
“Not yet,” she replied.
The lunch we subsequently wolfed down at Mr. B’s Bistro in the French Quarter featured “fresh wild shrimp from the Gulf” that were spectacular, a gustatory development that proved thematic over the next few days: While dining in rebuilt restaurants and yacht clubs along the coast we found the seafood to be uniformly excellent. Hey, nobody deep-fries a shrimp like a Southerner!
Mr. B’s is fast. We had plenty of time after lunch to drive out to the yacht club, toss our bags aboard our 48, hit the airport for a rental-car drop-off, and make it back in time for a meeting with yacht broker and club member Stanton Murray; Beneteau Swift Trawler owner and club member Bob Maher; and Louis Capo, New Orleans Levee District executive director and as such, manager of two of the biggest marinas in New Orleans. Murray and Maher began by explaining how Southern’s clubhouse, destroyed by fire in Katrina’s aftermath, had been reconstituted 18 1/2 feet above lake level atop auger-driven pilings.
“And we’re the second oldest club in the country,” Maher eventually concluded with enthusiasm.
“Founded in 1849,” Murray added.
Capo was more reserved. Though both of his state-controlled marinas—Orleans and South Shore Harbor—were operational, South Shore was still without a fuel dock, restaurant, and other amenities, despite the infusion of $9 million in FEMA and insurance monies. And concerning the only other big marina in town, the Municipal Yacht Harbor (under the city’s control but still in ruins) he had no comment, other than to suppose that “battling with FEMA” had stymied efforts.
This supposition, as well as the memory of what we’d seen with Smith, got me to thinking that evening, once I’d settled down for a snooze in the forward cabin of our 48, with Coln in the master, Galati captain Matt Condon on the settee in the lower salon, and Slidell, Louisiana’s Oak Harbor Marina, our stopping spot for the night, glowing in the ghostly moonlight outside: Should a catastrophe of Katrina’s enormous scope
devastate another of our country’s coasts—say in the Pacific Northwest or New England—would it take six years to rebuild?
I continued pondering the question the next morning as we moved on to Pass Christian, Mississippi, a historic antebellum community virtually destroyed by Katrina. The three-hour run left Coln and I time to check out both the town (still struggling with dirt streets, rubble-laden empty lots, and a dearth of trees) and the new Pass Christian Yacht Club, stylistically similar to the Southern Yacht Club as well as all the other rebuilt yacht clubs we visited during our trip. That afternoon, we bumped into Rod Ladner, one of the proprietors of Shaggy’s Harbor Bar & Grill, the only enterprise in town with full, on-the-beach exposure to the Gulf.
“When we built this place after Katrina,” Ladner explained, “we were considered the fools of the town. Yeah maybe. But ya know, I used to travel the globe
for business—used to be a million-miler with Delta—but I ultimately concluded some years ago that this is the most beautiful spot in the world to be. This coast. It’s home.”
We encountered people with similar sentiments in Long Beach, Mississippi, the following day. The first was United Methodist minister, Rod Dickson-Rischel. “I know folks here,” he said, “who were literally naked in the world after the storm. Without water, shelter…nothin’. And yet they’ve stayed, perhaps because of the deep level of commitment to place, community, and spirit that we have in this part of the country.”
Then there was municipal marina employee David Falks and his ex-wife Vicki. They’d been married when I’d first interviewed them for a PMY story (see “Beyond Belief,” November 2005) on Katrina’s aftermath. But now things were different. Financial problems and other stresses after Katrina had caused the divorce, Vicki said while standing in the house she and her husband had once shared and laboriously restored. “It is home,” she added, “but it’ll never be the same.”
And finally there was William Skellie, Jr., Long Beach’s indomitable mayor. As I entered his office in the new city hall I remembered the last time I’d seen him, seated in a truck, bedraggled, gazing at an immense seawater-filled hole that had once been the municipal marina. But now things were different for him as well. He wore a crisp button-down shirt. And, thanks to $3 million in mostly FEMA funds, the hole had been filled with 234 slips delineated by wooden docks, a brand-new dockmaster’s office, and a fuel dock. “Good to see you again, Bill,” he grinned, extending a hand. “I’m still here.”
The good news got even better the next day, once we’d parked our 48 at the Gulfport Yacht Club. The city’s public information officer Ryan LaFontaine stopped by to give us a tour of the new Jones Park/Small Craft Harbor complex under construction nearby. And what a project! The nearly completed 319-slip marina (with accommodations for vessels up to 90 feet) sported concrete pilings and floating docks, over a dozen picturesque 26-foot towers designed to elevate and protect junction boxes and other electrics from storm surge, and several new buildings. Coming attractions, LaFontaine said, included educational kiosks, a fisherman’s market, an amphitheater, and bus service. “Total cost’s gonna be about $24 million,” he added, “mostly from FEMA but some from storm insurance, too.”
“Positive stuff, that new complex,” Coln observed as we zoomed east later on, intent on making the short run to Biloxi, Mississippi, before dark. Condon was on the 48’s helm, and Coln and I were seated at the dinette table. “But it’s still depressing,” Condon commented, “all those antebellum homes, the live oaks, the history, so many businesses…gone!”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “The Gulf Coast’s slowly comin’ back, but it’s still got big-time challenges.”
We spent our last full day in Biloxi, gambling capital of the Gulf. And while we checked out the slots at the Isle casino and thoroughly enjoyed our full-service slip at city-owned Point Cadet Marina, the real fun began when our photo-boat driver Bobby Carter pulled a spare rod from a rodholder during a lull in a photo session and asked Coln, “You fish?”
“City girl,” she replied.
Call it beginner’s luck. Within an hour she’d joyfully filled a cooler with seatrout, which Carter (who reps the Isle when he’s not driving photo-boats or directing the annual Mississippi Billfish Gulf Coast Classic) eventually transported to Bridgette Boudreaux’s Manhattan Grill in nearby Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where we all enjoyed a raise-the-roof fish fry until midnight.
Coln seemed amazed next morning. “The friendliness and humanity of these people down here!” she exclaimed, as Condon set course for Orange Beach, Alabama, our final destination. “I’ve never seen anything like it—it’s wonderful.”
“Yup,” I replied, “and that’s a big part of the story. No doubt about it.”
Galati Yacht Sales
This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.