DELCAMBRE — This coastal fishing community is known as Louisiana’s shrimping hub, but in the more than three decades since imported seafood began dominating the market, many in Delcambre have felt their livelihoods slipping away.
So when Hurricane Rita ravaged the coastline a decade ago, flooding lower Vermilion and Iberia parishes from the Vermilion Bay to La. 14, the setback was too much for some hundreds of Delcambre residents who never returned. It also forced at least a partial reimagining of how this small town would work.
“This place was a dead waterfront — dead, dying, decaying,” said LSU AgCenter agent Thomas Hymel, also director of the Louisiana Direct Seafood Program that operates out of Delcambre. “Now, it’s a different thing.”
Rita’s destruction across the southwest Louisiana coastline — and the recovery dollars that followed — spurred ambitious plans to invigorate Delcambre’s slumping fishing market, where hundreds of boats lining the docks a half-century ago had dwindled to a few.
In the 10 years since the storm, the town’s built a new boat landing, marina, off-the-boat seafood marketing program and boutique shrimp brand. It hosts about 50 small-business owners at its new monthly farmers market, which brings a few thousand customers to each event.
Since its opening 13 months ago, more than 15,000 people have visited Bayou Carlin Cove, the $4 million recreational boat landing, fishing site and pavilion, according to Port of Delcambre estimates. The facility was built in large part through federal recovery money.
The town in 2012 also opened a new 31-spot marina, paid for through bonds on a 10-year property tax residents approved in 2009. The money is intended to revitalize the port, which, before Rita, primarily managed leases to oil and gas companies.
High-dollar cruising and offshore fishing boats now fill the marina, where a few houseboats dock, too.
“Now, we’re getting into recreational, community-type things, which is a little bit different than what ports normally do,” said Wendell Verret, director of the Twin Parish Port District.
The shiny new successes are bringing tourists and money into the community, but Delcambre’s population is still 300 fewer than before the storm.
Floodwaters from Hurricane Rita covered more than 600 square miles of marsh and farmland in Vermilion Parish, and caused widespread damage to Delcambre and its neighbors in Erath, Intracoastal City and Pecan Island. Some residents in those low-lying areas moved inland or elsewhere instead of rebuilding or restoring properties damaged by Rita’s relentless winds and storm surge.
In Delcambre, the town’s population has dropped to 1,866, according to recent census data. About 80 percent of the homes there were flooded by at least 6 inches of water during the storm, and a number of homes were destroyed or demolished after taking in several feet of floodwater.
About 15 percent of homes are now vacant, compared with about 8.5 percent before the storm, according to census data. More than 80 residences are gone.
New building requirements now impose strict regulations on both fresh construction and significant renovations in low-lying areas like Delcambre, which straddles Vermilion and Iberia parishes.
Any new construction or improvements that cost more than 50 percent of the structure’s worth before Rita must be elevated above the base flood level for that area. In Delcambre, FEMA now requires 14 feet of elevation beneath a building.
Elevation costs proved too expensive for some, especially after Rita’s successor, Hurricane Ike, blasted through the region in 2008. A drive through Delcambre now shows a mixture of blight beside the fresh look of renovated houses and camps elevated on either concrete pillars or huge grass mounds.
It’s only with $1 million in federal recovery money that Shawn Sigur, who owns a small specialty meats store in town, can afford to build a new 11,000-square-foot grocery to serve residents who, for the last decade, have had to leave town to stock up.
Delcambre had one grocery store before Rita, but it was severely damaged and the owners didn’t rebuild. When the town put out a request for proposals for the $1 million in federal funding available to elevate a new store, Sigur was the only one to bid.
Sigur said the expanded version of Shawn’s Cajun Meats Too, set to serve customers by the end of 2016, will be stocked by a grocery distributor with locations outside of the state in case another storm wreaks havoc on the area.
“I’m excited,” Sigur said. “I’m ready to give the community what they deserve.”
It’s a similar idea behind Delcambre’s new branding efforts, which include a direct marketing program that connects fishermen and women to the public through a website that details who’s catching what and when they’ll have it for sale. Buyers get the fish straight from boats perched at the Delcambre dock.
Delcambre Direct Seafood — which proved so successful it expanded to other parishes and now operates under the Louisiana Direct Seafood program — launched in 2010 with much success, Verret recalled.
“People lined up on the dock with their ice chests to buy off the boat. And that’s when we knew we were on to something,” Verret said.
Whereas shrimpers may get $1 a pound to sell their catch wholesale, they can sell the product straight to customers for $3 or $4. Fishermen this month had sold a record amount of more than 200,000 pounds of shrimp straight from their vessels.
Along with the direct marketing program, Delcambre shrimp are also branded and sold frozen to grocery stores under the name “Vermilion Bay Sweet.” They’re promoted as organic, antibiotic-free and local, riding on the movement of consumers who want more of those kinds of products, Verret said.
At the new boat launch, the town is preparing to put out a request for proposals to develop a 14-acre plot of land in a long-term lease.
Along with the launch, marina and branding campaign, that plot of land soon could be the home for more attractions — maybe an RV park or a new restaurant, maybe a store for seafaring locals and visitors alike, Verret surmised.
“That’s a lot in five years,” Verret said, referring to the five years since they got federal funding to pay for the projects. “Now we have five more years going forward.”
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825