An Unexpected Victim Of August Floods: The Coastal Fishing Industry
Last August, several days of heavy rain flooded the Baton Rouge area. From Baton Rouge to Denham Springs to Gonzales -- rising waters flooded out around one hundred thousand homes and caused billions of dollars worth of damage. Recovery is ongoing, even nine months later.
The Baton Rouge area isn’t the only part of the state still struggling this many months out. The damage rippled out across the state -- all the way down to the tiny town of Leeville, near Grand Isle, along the coast.
On typical weekend this time of year, Leeville is usually bustling.
“You got people running around the town like ants,” says Ben Griffin, owner of Griffin’s Marina and Ice in Leeville.
Griffin has owned his business for 40 years. He sells food, fuel, tackle, and of course, ice. “I’m like the local Wal-Mart," he says. “Everything but the low prices.”
The store is a local staple, but Griffin says nearly all of his customers come from other parts of the state -- mainly, the Baton Rouge area. So the floods there last August had a big impact.
“You had no one coming here,” says Griffin. “When I say no one, I mean no one. Who would think that Baton Rouge, Gonzales and all them places would affect a town like Leeville?”
Leeville is a modest fishing destination. Nothing fancy about it. It’s way down Highway 1, right before the bridge to Grand Isle, and it’s tiny. Thirty to sixty people live there, depending on who you ask.
Fishing drives Leeville's economy. There’s commercial fishing, like shrimping, and then there’s the city crowd -- people who spend a weekend in their camps and trailers, go out for the day, and fill up an ice chest of caught fish to bring back to the city.
Wayne Melancon drives his Chevy pickup through the trailer park he owns. He’s 60 years old. Has short graying hair, fully grayed beard. At least one friend calls him “Haystack” because of his stout frame.
Most of the spots at his trailer park are taken, rented by people from Baton Rouge who leave their campers parked there year-round. A couple look newish, others look like they haven’t moved in ages. There’s old fishing equipment is scattered around -- boats, poles, and life-jackets.
Melancon has lived on the property for almost 50 years. He knows the tenants well, but he hasn’t seen most of them for months. Except the ones who came to pick up their trailers -- the ones who had such bad flooding in their Baton Rouge homes that they needed them to live in.
“His mom, him, and his daughter went underwater,” says Melancon, pointing at an empty spot from inside his truck. “So he took the trailers.”
This guy over here -- Mr. Goldman -- he took his trailer too, to live in. But they still rent the spots.”
Melancon says because people still rent his spots, he’s not losing as much money as everyone else in town.
The dramatic decline in recreational fishing has really cost Ben Griffin, the convenience store owner. He says he’s lost more than half the business he had.
“For the first time in 40 years I thought I was going to maybe have to lay off some people,” he says.
Joey Bouziga is the mayor of Golden Meadow -- a town just up the road from Leeville. He says the tourists aren’t coming because they’re too busy fixing up their homes, spending money replacing what was lost. And that’s hurting towns across the coast.
“These people coming down to fish. Buy bait. Room and board. Eat breakfast, dinner, lunch,” says Bouziga . “So it’s been a big impact. I don’t know how long it’s gonna last. I don’t know how long people can last.”
In the meantime, some residents have turned away from tourism, making ends meet with other work like shrimping and construction.
Coastal Louisiana has suffered a lot in recent years. Hurricanes, the BP oil spill, the recent downturn in the oil and gas industry. But despite all that, Wayne Melancon says his home is still paradise.
“I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” he says. “I can get out my front door, jump in my boat. Go fishing.”
And the fish are really biting.
Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Coypu Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and local listeners.