empire, LA stranded boats

Fishing boats stranded near Empire, Louisiana, August 29, 2005
Photo: NOAA, Gulfstream IV

The small fishing town of Empire, deep in the southern bayous of Louisiana, is still struggling to rebuild after being devastated by Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005. Although small in size, with less than 500 residents prior to the storm, Empire was a big fishing town with more boats than residents and has been ranked one of the top three fishing ports in the USA, based on seafood volume.

empire map

Empire is perched on a sliver of land, nestled between the banks of the Mississippi River and the surrounding marshlands, bays and bayous, which extend for several miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Positioned about 60 miles south of New Orleans, Empire was in the center of the monster storm’s crosshairs as the hurricane barreled northward toward the Louisiana coast. Empire and the surrounding communities in Plaquemines Parish were swamped by a wall of water estimated to have been 22 feet high. The 17 foot high levees that surrounded the communities were but a mere speed-bump for the ravaging waters driven on by 150 miles-per-hour winds. Needless to say, not much was left; all homes were totally destroyed, and the boats were strewn all over, landing in places where boats were not supposed to be. Now, almost two and one-half years later, the debris has mostly been cleaned up but the rebuilding is slow ““ painfully slow.

Empire is a key fishing port in southeastern Louisiana because of its position as a gateway to prime fishing grounds along the Gulf of Mexico. A vessel navigational lock on the Empire Canal and a companion navigational lock on the river’s east bank at Ostrica (Latin for “oyster”) provide vessels access to the Mississippi River and to fishing grounds to the north and east. It is the only set of navigational locks available for boats to cross the river below New Orleans.

Empire is the port of landing for a variety of seafood delicacies from Gulf of Mexico’s bounty. That includes the very popular wild-caught gulf shrimp, tasty blue crabs, and succulent oysters. The recreational fishermen in this sportsman’s paradise target the famous redfish and the aggressive speckled trout. Charter boats are also available here to take visitors to this inshore fishing Mecca, or, alternatively, they can be taken for a challenging deep sea fishing experience targeting tuna, king mackerel, amberjack, and the prized red snapper.

empire, LA ice house
Empire’s shrimp dock, 2008
Photo: John Tesvich

The menhaden industry is an important local fishery with thousands upon thousands of tons harvested annually by the large purse-seining fleet. Menhaden are small oily fish which are processed for the production of fish oil and fish and animal feed — none of the fish is wasted. The oyster industry is also big here, with deep roots in the history and culture of this area. Louisiana is the largest producer of oysters in the United States, accounting for over one-third of the country’s oyster production. Empire is located in the heartland of Louisiana’s oyster industry, with the most prolific oyster beds in the state located within a 30 mile radius.

Altogether, hundreds of fishermen consider Empire their homeport. Luke Cibilich and his wife Domenica operate their family’s oyster business there. The Cibilichs’ home, located a few miles north of Empire, was flooded and severely damaged by the hurricane. After the hurricane they bought a house in Belle Chasse, a town 45 miles away that was mostly spared from storm damage. That allowed them to put their children in school, while they commuted daily to save what they could of their home and begin the repair of their oyster boats and dock. Now, Luke spends more nights in the FEMA trailer located next to his damaged home, while his family is in Belle Chasse. The irony is not lost on Cibilich: “I bought a nice new house two years ago, but I find myself spending three or four nights a week in the FEMA trailer while I work on fixing my house and boats.” Like many other fishing families from this area, they have been forced to reorganize their lives and finances so that they can get back to work ““ and that’s what they did.

empire back to work

View of Empire from the high-rise bridge (Mississippi River in the background)
Photo: John Tesvich

Unfortunately, much of the civic and public infrastructure of the community has yet to be rebuilt. Empire still has no grocery store, no hardware store, and no gas station. There is still no church, no civic center, and no Tom’s Place restaurant. The small drawbridge on Empire Canal that bisects the town was taken out by the government after the storm. By all accounts, the bridge was repairable, but the government people said that they would put in a new bridge. So two and one-half years later there is still no bridge, and the locals have to drive about three miles around on the high-rise bridge to get across the 150-foot-wide navigation canal.

no bridge at empire, LA

The government removed the drawbridge over the canal that bisects Empire;
construction has yet to start on a new bridge
Photo: John Tesvich

The Cibilichs have their oyster boats back at work, but they aren’t able to use their dock in Empire. The navigational lock at Ostrica was damaged in the storm and has yet to be repaired, making it extremely difficult for the boats from Empire to access the prime oyster grounds on the east side of the river. The Cibilichs therefore have transferred their oyster harvesting operations to a dock in Hopedale, in St. Bernard Parish, about a two hour drive from Empire. The Department of Transportation, the government agency in charge of navigational locks, stated that Ostrica would be repaired by March 2008, but work has yet to begin.

Meanwhile, in the private sector, fishing familes like Luke and Domenica Cibilich are doing what they can to stay afloat.

Note: John Tesvich is the founder and owner of Ameripure Oyster Company in Plaquemines Parish. He is best known for inventing a very successful system for cleaning the oysters that he catches and then ships to distributors and direct customers.

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