Billy Jacob had heard the tales filtering up from Grand Bayou. There were accounts of 30-foot walls of ocean water washing over the marsh. There was the story of an elderly man who clung in an oak tree to survive hurricane swells and winds. But when he saw Grand Bayou, Louisiana, for himself the first time after Hurricane Katrina, Jacob found there were no words to describe what he saw.
“I went back through it the Fourth of July last year, a town I’ve seen my whole life,” says Jacob. “Grand Bayou is a shambles. A handful of people went through the storm. No one knows where most of them went. No one knows.”
Situated on a cheniere, or a ridge of land deep in the Southeast Louisiana marsh, and accessible only by water, the intercultural Native American (Atakapa, Houma), African-American, and Cajun community of Grand Bayou thrived for three centuries. Its people survived the Civil War, two World Wars, the Great Depression, and countless natural disasters. Before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the tiny hamlet was home to 25 families, about 300 people. Not long ago, Grand Bayou and the surrounding area produced one-fourth of all the crabs in Louisiana some months, and 30 percent of America’s annual seafood harvest, measured in weight. Today, unable to make a living off of the land, the few remaining residents are finding work in the oil and gas factories a few miles over.
For Jacob, who is the executive chef and director of culinary development at Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits, the problem is more than personal. He’s a Cajun who loves his native land and cuisine, and as the second anniversaries of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita approach, he still frets about the loss of lives and agricultural resources. As an executive with a quick-serve company, he knows that the damage Katrina and Rita inflicted in the fall of 2005 continues to affect business, limiting purchasing options and driving up the cost of foods and utilities in an industry where margins rule.
The plight of Grand Bayou is a vivid, but by no means extraordinary, example of the continuing struggles of southern Louisiana communities that make their living off of the land and water. Life as a farmer, fisher, crabber, trapper—nearly any resource-based livelihood outside of oil or gas production—is still a struggle. Indeed, the numbers are astounding. Prior to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the commercial fishing industry supported some 15,000 fishing families with an estimated total impact of $2.8 billion, 31,400 jobs, and $107 million in state sales and income tax revenue, according to figures from Louisiana State University’s agribusiness department. One commercial fisher generated roughly $169,000 in economic impact per year for the state of Louisiana.
Combining the impacts of economic losses and increased costs from both storms, the losses in the shrimping industry totaled $90,379,063. Crabbing suffered $18,702,036 in damages, and oyster production lost $27,247,812.