Guiding after the storms

After a brutal 2005, the Redfish Nation experienced a calm '06 and '07 as central gulf coast residents painstakingly rebuilt their lives following the wrath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

This year's devilish duo of Gustav and Ike, arriving eerily in the same time frame as Katrina and Rita, will take a back seat to no one in terms of impact. Katrina eviscerated all but a few of the hundred-plus-mile stretch to Louisiana most Cup anglers navigated last year in the Oh Boy! Oberto Redfish Cup at Orange Beach, Ala.

Rita did much the same at the western end of Louisiana, as it slammed ashore three weeks later along the Texas-Louisiana border. Both were, at one time in their lifespan, considered one of the strongest storms in recorded history, lending to their destructive power, even if they didn't make landfall as the mother of all storms.

A wide swath of destruction, mostly from the storm surge racing through Louisiana's fragile marshlands, was cut from the sinister east side of the storm, where the intense cyclonic action flows from south to north — not a good deal for the Gulf Coast.

Hurricane Ike was most everything Rita was feared to be: a strong storm hitting the vulnerable coastal region around Galveston, Texas. Former Redfish Cup champion Jim West makes his home on the Bolivar Peninsula town of Crystal Beach. During Ike, West evacuated just north of Houston to be with his mother.

"The eye of the storm came right over Humble, Texas," said West. "It was so big that it took an hour and a half for the other eyewall to get there. It was really eerie. Dead calm, but really, really, really dark, so there were some clouds covering the moon and stars. There was this little mist in the air and every now and then these giant raindrops.

"When the other side of the eye got close, you could hear that sucker crank up. The wind started picking up and it wasn't but two minutes or so before we were back in it. I think they said we had 95 mph sustained winds there."

Access, of course, was limited for quite some time during the aftermath, as officials sorted out the colossal mess, alternately assessing damage and extricating stranded survivors. West found his way to his place by boat, finding it standing, but not without significant loss.

"I built it in 2000, right after all of the insurance codes took place (requiring houses in the area to be elevated 17 feet). I'm 6 feet above sea level and took on about 8 feet of water downstairs in my workshops, so the 14-foot of surge that was reported in Rollover Pass near Gilchrist was accurate.

"There was a lot of equipment — two bigfreezers and that kind of stuff — that was a total loss, but the upstairs was almost exactly as I had left it.

"The bayside of the island did OK, especially the new construction. The older homes really took it hard, and just about all of it is in bad shape on the Gulf side. Those newer homes were built to take a big wind, but not the kind of surge we had. It was a Cat. Two storm, but we had close to a Cat. Four surge.

There were some gigantic waves hitting those houses. The first three rows really took it on the chin.

"I'm just glad to have a house to come home to. There are a lot of people who just don't."

The landfall dynamic of a storm such as Ike lends itself to damage over an incredibly large area, including nearly the entire Louisiana coast. As Ike chugged along to its east Texas destination, stiff east winds piled water into Lake Pontchartrain and the east bank of the Mississippi River.

It also passed close enough to the coast to wreak havoc on areas such as Lafitte, La., and the coastal communities south of Houma, La., which had taken a punishing blow relative to wind from Hurricane Gustav.

When the wind gradually switched to the southeast and then south, the water poured into the storm surge superhighways known as the Barataria Waterway and the Houma Navigation Canal. These two shipping channels are vital in keeping the oil and gas industry going, but were enablers for Ike to pile a lot of water inland and flood communities, which had breathed a noticeable sigh of relief when spared by Gustav.

Much the same way, Ike's surge bullied its way up the Calcasieu Ship Channel, bringing the fishing community of Hackberry to its knees once again.

Redfish Cup champion Kevin Broussard, who has property in the town situated on the west side of Lake Calcasieu, said most everyone learned their lessons from Rita, but that the impracticality of building everything up and out of harm's way has still resulted in widespread damage, most of which is uninsured.

"Hackberry, once again, is pretty much gone," Broussard said. "Even more so than in Rita, this storm tore up pretty much everything that wasn't built 10 feet up. Much of what was rebuilt was built that high, but for most of the lodges around here, they still had offices and kitchens and equipment rooms built pretty much on the ground."

Broussard, who teams with his dad "Cajun" Phil Broussard in Cup competition, said though many have admired the community's resiliency through the travails of Rita last year, he's noticing unease about going through the process again.

"To be honest, I'm starting to hear some people who just think it's too much," he said. "Two big storms in three years is a lot to take in. Starting from scratch again at this point is just a lot to process."

The fishing, as it is following most storms, has been solid according to the few people Broussard has spoken to. Another one of the myriad problems faced with those guides such as Broussard and Lake Calcasieu east banker Eric Rue is simply getting around in the famed trophy speckled trout fishery.

"The lake is once again full of debris. In '05, I tore three lower units off of my engine just running my boat," said Broussard, adding that damaged boats cut into the bottom line, both in repairs and down time.

Further to east in the famed marshes of Hopedale, Charlie Thomason had a similarly weary attitude toward another period of time where picking up the pieces of even a partially shattered world.

"Everything down here is about cleaning up, for the most part," Thomason said.
"The fishing is going to come back here, absolutely. But a lot of us are getting really tired of the process. And you don't know when the next one is going to come and do it again."

Hopedale is literally surrounded by marsh, and the churning, flooding water displaced plenty of the golden fields of spartina grass into seemingly every crevice in the town.

"There's marsh grass from one end of this place to the next — big huge clumps of it," Thomason said. "And FEMA is not going to come over here and haul it out like last time. Pretty soon there'll be weeds growing out of it."

Thomason's lodging came through both Gustav and Ike fine. But like his partners to the west, not everything can be built out of harm's way.

"It's stuff like the damage to my dock, the hoist motors, that sort of thing. It's nothing compared to those guys in Texas had, but you can feel the people around here are just tired," Thomason said. "The thing about what we had here in Louisiana is that we had damage from both storms. Gustav put 8 1/2 feet of water over here and just when we were getting power back, they closed the road for Ike."

But perhaps the biggest impact the storms have showed is the continued wasting away of the Louisiana's wetlands. The same kind of broken marsh that gave up the winning fish for the team of Andrew Bostick and Mark Sepe in the Hopedale RFC event creates consequences when it comes to providing the needed buffer zone for storm surge.

"When I bought this place 14 years ago, we had a storm maybe a year after," Thomason said. "We got 2 feet of water. It just seems like with each storm it gets worse and worse. Now with a steady northeast wind from a cold front, we get flooded. That open water just doesn't do anything in terms of protection."

As a result, Louisiana's relatively weak tides will be further influenced by wind rather than those who predict them right now.

"I guarantee there's not an accurate tide chart out there," Thomason added. "More and more we're just going to look at the water level in the morning and a crab trap float to see whether it falling or rising. That's pretty much how the old timers used to do it. I guess we'll start doing it too."