Waiting for Oysters in Pass Christian
"Katrina isn't just about New Orleans." This is a statement I heard repeatedly yesterday during a visit to Pass Christian, Miss., a Gulf coast town that was nearly wiped out by the storm.
Pre-Katrina, some 6,000 people called Pass Christian (pronounced kris-chee-ANN) home, but a storm surge of at least 30 feet, leveled most of the town's buildings and homes up to half a mile inland.
The debris is gone, but remnants of the storm are everywhere. Lots where homes once stood are now empty, save a few bricks indicating someone's front steps; the surreal empty space continues for blocks, indicated by strips of paved road.
Nearly two years later, the once-thriving beachfront town is still without a supermarket or its own fire department. It destroyed the Bay St. Louis bridge, which connected Pass Christian to the neighboring town of Bay St. Louis as well as the interstate, which has impacted deliveries of goods and services. The bridge reopened just two weeks ago, with two lanes now operating.
Katrina also wreaked underwater havoc, decimating Mississippi's oyster population, the source of a $6 million industry. More than 90 percent of Mississippi Gulf oysters living on 12,000 underwater acres, was destroyed, according to Scott Gordon, Shellfish Director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources. Gordon and Captain Kenny took me and my Culinary Corps colleagues out on a conservation boat, which monitors the progress of the slowly rebounding oyster population and the reefs upon which they grow. DMR, a state agency dedicated to marine conservation, has launched a five-year plan to bring the reefs back to health, and is getting federal monies via a NOAA disaster grant to help with the restoration.
Given that it takes 18-24 months for a Mississippi oyster to reach marketable size, the first post-Katrina oyster has not yet materialized. Jennifer Jenkins of Crystal Seas Oysters, a family-owned oyster processing company operating since 1996, can hardly wait for the fall, when she anticipates a respectable oyster season. Since the storm, she says, Crystal Seas has been buying oysters from Louisiana to keep the business running. Their shucking and packing facility is one of the few buildings that was left intact. Jenkins tells me that it will be another two, maybe three years before they can enjoy pre-Katrina production levels.
Captain Kenny drove us out to a few different reefs, where we stopped and dropped the chained net to dredge up some oysters and see how they were doing. Gordon, whose favorite way to eat 'em is smoked, was pleased by what he saw -- lots of new growth and signs of healthier reef formation.
Upon returning to the dock, we headed to Kimball's, a local seafood shack, for a feast that included boiled head-on shrimp, corn and potatoes, and a few trays of grilled oysters on the half shell. We ate outside at a few picnic tables in the yard, occasionally catching a cool Gulf breeze. Kimball's, which has been a staple of Pass Christian since 1930, just reopened for business last week.
Maybe this time next year, those oysters will be Pass Christian's own.
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