Most people would have given up a long time ago, but not George Barisich. The veteran shrimper from lower St. Bernard Parish has poured his entire life -- and his life's savings -- into an industry that is more than a job, more than a career, more than a lifestyle. The fishermen, oystermen and shrimpers of coastal Louisiana have a calling akin to a religious vocation. Their ties to the land, the water and the environment go back far and run deep. That's why their stories are so heartbreaking. In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, they have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their land, the tools of their trade and the infrastructure that enabled them to provide the rest of us with the greatest seafood on earth. What Katrina didn't take from them -- their dignity and their abiding sense of hope for better times -- the federal government is about to squash by abandoning and ignoring them.
Last week, Barisich drove all the way to Gambit Weekly's offices to ask if we could help him peddle his shrimp directly to customers. Left without help from FEMA, denied coverage by insurance companies, and caught between high fuel costs and low dockside prices for their catch, Barisich and others have no choice but to try to sell directly to consumers. Barisich's T-shirt that day summed up his predicament. It read: "Flooded by Katrina! Screwed by FEMA! What's Next, Mr. Bush!" It's not an overstatement. As 88-year-old Blackie Campo, the patriarch of Shell Beach and a fixture in lower St. Bernard, noted from the remains of his once-busy recreational fishing dock, "They haven't offered us any help. But they've spent $100 billion on people who would shoot us in the bat of an eye. We bombed their houses and then we go back and build them up again. They don't have to ask -- we just do it." ("Catch of the Day," Gambit Weekly, Aug. 8, 2006.)
On top of all that, after Katrina's devastating winds and floods, after denials by insurers, run-arounds from FEMA, inaction from Congress, empty promises from the White House -- after all of that -- St. Bernard's fishing communities still must contend with the longstanding problem of massive erosion and saltwater intrusion caused by the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO or "Mister Go"), which has never lived up to its billing as an economic boon but instead has destroyed or weakened beyond recognition most of St. Bernard's once-pristine fresh and brackish marshlands. And yet, through it all, Barisich forges ahead, plying his shrimp boat out of Dulac and other coastal seafood centers, trying to eke out a living. "Before Katrina, I had everything paid for, including my kids' education," Barisich told us last week. "Now I'm over my head in debt once again."
The coastal communities of lower St. Bernard have joined fishing communities across south Louisiana in petitioning the federal government for relief, to no avail. Two weeks ago, U.S. Department of Commerce announced the release of nearly $128 million in "assistance" to Gulf fisheries. That money is only slightly more than 10 percent of the $1.1 billion that was requested -- with nearly $1 billion representing Louisiana's losses. What's worse, less than half the amount released is coming to Louisiana -- and none of it in the form of direct aid to fishermen, shrimpers or oystermen who lost boats, docks, nets and other essential equipment. Instead, the money will be used to reseed and restore oyster beds, remove obstructions and debris from some waterways and study the "recovery" of fisheries. The paltry sum allocated to Louisiana ($52.9 million) and the lack of any direct aid to those in the seafood industry stand as a cynical reminder of the federal government's inertia and ineptitude in the face of a catastrophe.
Enough is enough.
We call upon the entire Louisiana delegation and all of Congress to make the rescue of our state's seafood industry -- particularly those who comprise its front lines in coastal communities -- a top priority in charting the recovery from last year's storms. In addition, we applaud U.S. Sen. David Vitter's recent efforts to get the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers back on track with regard to the long-sought closure of the MR-GO. We urge the rest of our delegation and Congress to add their voices to the growing chorus in favor of closing "Mister Go" as quickly as possible -- and providing federal assistance to the industries that must relocate as a result of the closure.
Seventy years ago, then-President Franklin Roosevelt visited New Orleans and dined at world-famous Antoine's Restaurant with local dignitaries, scarfing up a plate of Oysters a la Rockefeller during the meal. Then-Mayor Robert Maestri, seated next to FDR, turned to the president and uttered what has become a legendary question: "How ya like dem ersters, Mr. President?" FDR chuckled that he liked them just fine. Well, if our current president and Congress don't get off their duffs and help people like George Barisich and Blackie Campo bring back Louisiana's seafood industry, it won't be long before "dem ersters" -- along with fresh shrimp and other coastal delicacies -- disappear from our tables entirely. Such a loss would mean much more than doing without great seafood; it would mean losing a vital part of America itself.
George Barisich hasn't given up on America. Let's hope America doesn't give up on him.