A Project for Students and Citizens

Living Democracy in Bayou La Batre: Week Three

In Bayou La Batre on June 12, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Laney Pic 5Bayou battles three strikes

By Laney Payne

An old proverb says “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Sadly, that might not always be true in the coastal town of Bayou La Batre, Ala.

After a devastating Hurricane Ivan, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and finally the massive BP oil spill, Bayou La Batre’s citizens have struggled to get back ontoLaney pic 4 their feet and create a firm foundation to withstand the next storm. “Ivan, Katrina, and oil. Three strikes and you’re out, right?” said Daphne German, a citizen of Bayou La Batre who came for hurricane relief work and simply never left. “Before everything hit, I would hate sitting at the stop light waiting for the shrimp boats to pass under the draw bridge. Now, I’m so thankful that they are even headed out to sea,” she added.

Most of Bayou La Batre’s citizens work at bustling internationally known shipyards, on shrimp boats, such as the vessels featured on TLC’s hit show “Big Shrimpin’” based on a local shrimping crew, or among the many crab and oyster shacks sprinkled throughout the bayou. Just three years after their most recent tragedy, the community still manages to push out to sea in search of the fresh start that each tide brings.  However, the deserted boats left tied to weathered wooden posts, struggling seafood shacks and empty storefront windows show that jobs in Bayou La Batre can be as hard to find as the small shark teeth that wash up on the shore. With patience and luck, you just might find one.

In a town with nearly 29 percent of the population living below the poverty line, the people of Bayou La Batre use whatever means necessary to make ends meet. Some blame “disaster capitalists” who came to town after the oil spill for making the aftermath even more difficult for citizens. “BP ruined a way of life,” said Tommy Myers, a 16 year resident of nearby Mobile who visits Bayou La Batre to volunteer with the youth. “Don’t give us money. We need suitable industry and education for work we can do to recreate a way of life here.”

“People got desperate. They signed quick claims with BP in exchange for a lifetime promise to not sue BP for their suffering. If you didn’t sign, some had to pick up their claims in New Orleans. Well, if you don’t have a job, you don’t have a car, and you don’t have gas, then how can you get to New Orleans? People didn’t think about that. They handled it all wrong,” explained Myers.

Laney pic 2Jeremiah Baky, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate in Bayou La Batre, said, “Unemployment, it’s weird. It’s all tied together. When people don’t work, they turn to drugs, and then parenting and education takes a hit and suffers too.” With many citizens on hourly pay and in constant search of the next day’s work, some residents are forced to turn to government assistance for help.  “Everyone is on unemployment and looking for help,” said Myers. “We give out nearly 15,000 pounds of food to thousands of people each week.”

It seems as if there is no end to the turmoil of the job situation in Bayou La Batre. As more and more seafood jobs are sent overseas for cheaper labor costs, the long-time workers in their gleaming white “Bayou Reebok” rubber work boots may be left standing empty.  “The oil spill gave them the excuse they were waiting for to send their business overseas,” said Myers. “If it’s not from the bayou, I won’t buy it.”

When asked, “what do you want to do when you grow up?” many children reply, “I want to fish.” The children of Alabama’s seafood capital know fishing as a way of life, as their parents and grandparents before them.  Unfortunately, the “fishing” way of life is changing dramatically, and more and more students are in need of new training and options. “You have to invest in your education in order to make a living. You never know what’s going to happen,” Baky recently told a group of younger children with dreams of setting sail instead of hitting the books.

Something is needed to bring an air of possibility to the bayou again.  The resilient citizens of the small community are bonded together by deep family roots and have learned to survive and persevere.  Perhaps Bayou La Batre has entered into an era of:  “Teach a man something more than fishing, and he will eat for a lifetime.”

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