Louisiana oysterman’s life left in shambles by Hurricane Ida
As Hurricane Ida started to subside on Aug. 29, 2021, fifth-generation Louisiana oysterman Jacob David Hulse thought he had been through the worst of it. Like many Louisiana fishermen are finding out, his troubles were only beginning that day, the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
For more than six hours, Hulse, his girlfriend, Lindsey Willis, and his dog, Change, huddled with their friend Kenneth (Keno) Templet in his oyster shop, struggling to keep the walls and roof from caving in as the storm battered away at the structure with winds clocking in at more than 140 mph.
“I feared for my life. I really feared for my life,” said Hulse, 33. “You hear everyone say it sounds like a freight train. Well it does, a freight train that keeps coming and coming and coming, never sure when it ends.”
His 73-year-old mother, Gail Hedrick Hulse, with whom he shares his house, had evacuated to Kentwood with his older brother Jason. The young oysterman had stayed behind to finish boarding his home, and to secure his boat and truck.
“By the time I had finished, it was too late to escape what was coming,” he said. “I didn’t want to get stuck in traffic trying to evacuate, so my friend Keno told me to come on over to the oyster shop. He was staying to try and save $20,000 worth of oysters he had in the cooler.”
Hulse gave himself the job of keeping the gas-powered generator from failing. He had placed it outside a door, so he wouldn’t have to fight the brunt of the storm to refuel, or so he thought.
“The winds were so strong, Lindsey and I had trouble getting out the door,” Hulse said, “and even more trouble trying to put in gasoline.”
Throughout the storm, the generator continued its steady hum, unheard over the winds of the storm. As the winds continued their relentless pounding, Jacob Hulse watched as doors ripped away, exposing Jason Hulse’s oyster boat to the storm and damaging his own truck parked nearby. Then, about three hours into the storm, a wall of the shop started to collapse.
“One of the walls started to cave in, and wind and water was everywhere,” Hulse described the situation. “We managed to brace it with a couple of cables and get some tarp to cover the opening.”
The trio was also concerned about a wall below the commercial air conditioner. Using tables, they braced it as best they could.
“It was spooky. It could have come down at any moment, and that would have finished us for sure,” he said. “What we did was stay in the middle of the room and said our prayers, a lot of prayers, that everything would hold.”
At 9 that night, Hulse finally opened a door to venture into the unknown and inspect the damage.
“Although the door of the shed was gone, my brother’s boat was OK, and my pickup only had a crack in the front windshield.”
The following day, the two brothers first inspected Jason’s home, finding it completely roofless. Driving up to Jacob and his mom’s house, feelings went from hope to despair.
“We’re coming down the street, and I’m looking up, and it don’t look that bad,” he said. “It’s still there. When we got close, you could see it was bad.”
The house was severely damaged and had the majority of the roof ripped away.
“Everything inside was destroyed, soaking wet,” Hulse said. “It was horrible. Mom didn’t see it till the next day. I told her that night, ‘It ain’t good.’”
According to Hulse, his mom is nothing if not resilient. This is not their first hurricane. The pair lost everything to Hurricane Katrina. It was the generosity of friends and family after that storm that allowed them to get on with their lives.
“It ain’t good” became a refrain for the young oysterman and his mom’s prospects over the next few months. With no place to live, the two took shelter in his friend Keno’s camp in Dulac, living without water and powered only by a generator.
Trying to get his life back in order, the oysterman filed paperwork with FEMA to receive funds for damages to his house. The emergency management organization quickly denied his claim, saying his landlord’s insurance, paid for by the two Hulses, covered wind damage.
“For the past four years, mom and I have been paying rent and insurance, all with proper paperwork that allows us to eventually purchase the house,” explained the Houma fisherman. “We have been going back and forth with the landlord, the insurance company and FEMA. Four months after the storm we can’t get an answer. My mom still has been paying the rent, yet the owner has started to clear [out] the house, and some of our stuff has gone missing.”
Relief Is Elusive
For the Hulses, needed relief has been hard to come by. Jason Hulse purchased a used trailer for his younger brother, while the state of Louisiana provided a small trailer for their mom. The American Red Cross provided a $500 debit card. Other than that, the two have been living hand to mouth.
“I have been working as much as I can on my brother’s boat, dredging oysters almost every day,” he said. “It has been tough. I have to decide whether I can afford food or buy gas. Gas was always more important.”
With his housing situation caught in the grasp of a potential legal battle, two days before Christmas, Jacob took his mom to the bank to get a loan for a small parcel of land for the trailers, as well as withdraw her last $6,000 in savings, money she was hoping to use on needed dental work.
“Many in our Louisiana seafood families like the Hulses are still homeless from the hurricanes and not sure from where there next meal is coming,” said Ewell Smith of the Gulf Seafood Foundation and a member of the Louisiana Fishing Community Recovery Coalition. “It’s more important now than ever for our legislators to work with their legislators on comprehensive legislation that will give everyone a chance to recover. Our fishermen, processors, dock owners and others in the business need their support.”
The one bright spot in the Hulses’ lives has been the oysters. Unlike leases farther east, which have been covered with mud and debris from the storm, those the Hulse brothers have been harvesting are in good shape.
“I love working with oysters,” said Jacob Hulse, an oysterman who doesn’t eat oysters. “On my boat, I use tongs to harvest, but Jason’s is equipped with a dredge. It is kind of a nice change of pace working on his boat. We have been coming in with great looking oysters.”
The Hulses are now waiting for a FEMA inspection of the newly purchased property before the trailers can be moved there. Yet after all the hardships, they don’t ask for much. The younger Hulse would like to be able to get his mom the badly needed dental work.
“She is in a lot of pain,” he says. “My life has been a rollercoaster ever since two days before the storm. It just hasn’t stopped. It has been a grind both physically and mentally. I really wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”
For fishermen across Louisiana, the New Year is not looking bright.
“Seeing his horrific losses, both financial and professionally, saddens me,” said Jim Gossen of the Gulf Seafood Foundation and a member of the Louisiana Fishing Community Recovery Coalition. “Ida has taken everything from his mom and him. This is just one of thousands of other seafood stories from the hurricanes over the past two years remaining untold.”
Ed Lallo is the editor of Gulf Seafood News, which is funded by the nonprofit Gulf Seafood Foundation, based in Louisiana and covering the full scope of the Gulf of Mexico, from Texas to Florida.