Commercial fishermen in the coastal parishes south of New Orleans have identified a place to serve as a safe harbor for their boats during hurricanes, though they probably will have to spend at least one more hurricane season with no officially authorized place to go when a storm churns its way up from the Gulf of Mexico.
After working with the U.S. Coast Guard, state- and parish-level offices and private landowners, fishermen have identified a stretch of the southern wall of the Hero Canal in Plaquemines Parish as a place where as many as 200 boats could tie up and ride out a hurricane.
Plaquemines Parish asked the Coast Guard if it could install moorings there, and it received a letter of no objection last week. The private landowners involved have agreed to allow the land to be used.
While this is not the end of the permitting process, “the first step was just to make sure that we could do it, that the plan was OK, and we’ve done that now,” said Guy Laigast, director of the Plaquemines Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
The next step, perhaps not surprisingly, is to find funding for the project, which could cost in the low six figures.
Laigast said the parish has been talking to state Rep. Chris Leopold, R-Belle Chasse, about trying to find money, and it might be able to get some through the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
“Everybody is looking to see if they’ve got some funding available for this type of project,” he said.
He said Plaquemines’ Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funds — the same type of funds used recently in Lafourche Parish on a similar storm harbor and mooring facility inside the locks in Golden Meadow — are all dedicated to pumping stations and house elevation projects.
For Acy Cooper, a commercial fisherman and member of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, simply having a plan of action after three years of uncertainty is cause for optimism.
“We know what we want to do,” he said of the canal, which is just south of the Naval Air Station’s Joint Reserve Base. “It just takes the money to get it done.”
The problem first came to light in 2012, when trawlers powered up into West Bank canals just ahead of Hurricane Isaac, only to find that new restrictions implemented by the Coast Guard had left them with no place to tie up.
The new regulations, which came in response to damage done by barges dislodged during Hurricane Gustav in 2008, had been publicized but nevertheless caught the fishermen from coastal communities such as Empire and Venice unaware.
After an hourlong standoff with Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies, dozens of fishermen were able to tie up in a slip just off the Harvey Canal near Boomtown Casino.
The issue “wasn’t even on the radar for Isaac because the guys knew to just come up north, and then all of a sudden, there are ‘No Trespassing’ signs everywhere,” Laigast said.
After the storm, the search began for a permanent place that fishermen will know they can count on when they race upriver for eight hours on the front end of a hurricane. For the first couple of years, though, fishermen got a lot of sympathy and moral support but not much in the way of tangible progress — until recently.
“It’s definitely gained a bit more traction, and that’s a good thing,” said Twyla Herrington, a fisheries agent for Plaquemines, St. Bernard and Orleans parishes for LA Sea Grant and the LSU AgCenter.
Herrington hosted meetings in Lafitte, Buras and Gretna to help generate a consensus about where safe havens could be set up.
At those meetings, fishermen put colored pins into maps, each color representing a different storm, to show where they went, providing guidance not just on where a large mooring facility could go but also on where to scatter smaller ones.
“If it’s not something the fishermen have ownership in or (something) the community feels like was done with them in mind, then they’re not going to participate in it,” Herrington said. “This is not a situation where, if you build it, they will go there.”
Laigast said that even if all the permits and funding for the project were in hand today, it would be difficult to have something ready in time for the 2015 hurricane season. Even so, the parish and its partners will continue to work to get the moorings built at the Hero Canal site, he said.
As for Cooper and his fellow fishermen used to improvising on the fly, they’ll go into the season with their fingers crossed and a few ideas on where they might be able to hole up if necessary.
“We know it’s not going to happen overnight,” Cooper said. “We know it’s going to be a process.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.