BAYOU LA BATRE, Ala.—Hurricane Katrina only sideswiped Alabama as it devastated coastal Mississippi and New Orleans a decade ago, but Belinda Clark’s family is still recovering in the town that calls itself the state’s seafood capital.
The storm left 11 feet of water in her family’s Bay Shirt Co. store, smack in the middle of downtown, and damaged their other shop on Dauphin Island. Once the storm passed, dozens of shrimp boats rested atop docks and marshes, seafood processers were wiped out and about 75 percent of its homes were damaged or destroyed.
The Clarks’ two stores recovered with the help of federal loans, she said, and the family actually added a bait shop and restaurant after Katrina. But then the Gulf oil spill whacked all the businesses again in 2010, forcing the family to close their post-Katrina ventures.
So Clark now works in the family’s latest business, Bayou Produce and Seafood Market, selling tasty, fresh-off-the boat shrimp to visitors and locals and hoping for better times.
“The economy here in the Bayou is really bad, but we’re still holding on,” she said in a recent interview.
Katrina came ashore along the Mississippi-Louisiana line on Aug. 29, 2005, sparing Alabama the worst of its destruction because the powerful center of the storm was 90 miles away. More than 25,000 evacuees from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas came to the state seeking shelter, and some remain 10 years later.
While much of west Alabama received hurricane-force wind gusts up to 80 mph, causing damage across a wide area, the destruction didn’t approach the devastation that occurred in Mississippi and Louisiana. Downtown Mobile and much of the Alabama coast flooded, but the waters receded. The storm opened a hole in Dauphin Island that remained for years, but no structures were damaged.
Bayou La Batre, with about 2,500 residents, was another story.
The city dock was wiped out along with much of the town’s seafood industry along Shell Belt Road, the city’s industrial hub, and water nearly covered pumper trucks parked at the Bayou La Batre Fire Department. Volunteers flooded the town with donations and free labor.
“It took lots of people months to get back home, and some people couldn’t get back to their homes ever,” said lifelong resident Marcia Barnes, 47.
Longtime oysterman, crabber and shrimper Avery Bates said millions in federal disaster assistance was required to remove dozens of shrimp boats tossed inland by the storm surge, waves and wind, and a few small boats still remain in marshes. In all, about 113,000 Alabamians sought federal or state aid after Katrina.
Many seafood workers left the business, he said, but others were too stubborn to give up.
“Some of them say, ‘I’ve got too much mud between my toes and I’m going to hang in there,’ but it is tough,” said Bates, vice president of the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama.
Katrina was the last major storm to hit the northern Gulf Coast, and that worries residents who fear the region is overdue for a blast of tropical weather.
“Ten years gets you kind of anxious when you think of what Katrina did here and to the rest of the Gulf Coast,” said Bates.
Clark’s family businesses can’t take much more from the weather. The old shirt company that was flooded by Katrina is now struggling in a new, smaller location even when skies are sunny, she said.
“It’s on one of its last legs,” said Clark.