I’ve been living in hurricane-susceptible areas ever since I left Michigan in 2005. This year’s hurricane season, however, has been more of a presence for me than most. And we still have almost a full month to go.
What made this year different? Well, first, it’s been a pretty powerful season as far as hurricanes go, building upon trends. Second, I’ve spent this year’s hurricane season living in a travel trailer – mobile, but vulnerable, and always located along the coast. Third, my research continually introduces me to more and more people whose livelihoods depend on the water, and a major hurricane can really upend those livelihoods – literally and figuratively. With each hurricane warning, people, communities, and landscapes are on my mind.
First this year brought Florence to the Carolinas. I watched track updates on my phone from my nearly sea-level campground on Maryland’s eastern shore, ready to move the trailer to higher ground if needed (and grateful for the offers of driveways and homes). As the storm made its way west across the Atlantic, its certainty of making landfall at a town that was my home for 5 years only increased. As Michael hit Wilmington, I thought of friends who still lived there and the beaches, marshes, and swamps that I spent so many hours in. And I thought of the oyster farmers trying to build North Carolina’s oyster aquaculture industry – most of whom I’ve yet to meet, but through the magic of social media get to keep up with daily. Those who prepared for the storm and secured their gear and oysters still experienced damage and had to hold off on any sales until water quality was back to normal after storm.
Several weeks after Florence hit the Carolinas, I drove down to the Carolina border to see family. It was a long slow drive down Highway 17, passing still-flooded roads and homes with furniture, clothing, and all other types of material possession sitting out at the curb, water-logged, damaged, and waiting for pick-up. I bypassed Wilmington, as recommended by every highway advisory and friends that only recently made it back in town (but incidentally not by my GPS).
Admittedly, I was dropping the dogs off in South Carolina on my way to the Florida panhandle for a non-research related celebration. Not one to miss an opportunity to talk oysters (as every single person who was around me that weekend can confirm), I worked with an oyster farm in Panacea, FL (just east of the Apalachicola National Forest). Matthew and Hollie Hodges of Wakulla Mystique Oyster Farm let me join them for a beautiful day working oysters on their lease, and shared their story as well as the story of Wakulla and Apalachicola oyster industries – which, incidentally have taken different paths even though the wild oyster harvest from these two counties (Wakulla and Franklin) is inherently linked. Matthew told me about his own path from working the water as a wild oyster harvester to an oyster farmer and the possibilities ahead for Wakulla’s aquaculture industry.
One week later I thought of Matt and Hollie, their oysters, and their neighboring oyster farmers as Hurricane Michael lined up for the panhandle. Like Wilmington, oyster aquaculture in the Florida panhandle is a fairly young industry – many farmers are only a few years in to their new business. Anyone who makes their living off of the water doesn’t take an approaching hurricane lightly. Wild harvesters risk losing their fish stock as well as their boats (and homes and everything else that makes a waterfront community). Oyster farmers face those same fears as well, but their stock is a little different. They risk losing oysters that they have purchased as larvae or seed, cared for, tended, and helped grow until they’re ready for market. They also typically have additional gear used to house and work oysters. These features could mean that they have more to lose depending on the impact of a storm and one’s own financial stability. (Sidenote: Stability is something I’m investigating in my own research, and for many, stability offered by oyster aquaculture is one of its major selling points when compared to work in a wild fishery. So, even though an oyster farmer may have more to lose to a major storm event, they also may have an enhanced ability to respond and recover. Stay tuned.)
Fortunately, Matt and his Wakulla Mystiques made it through Michael well enough. This wasn’t the case for everyone in the hurricane’s path, as highlighted in various news stories. The Apalachicola oyster industry, in particular, received attention because of its tenuous future. Oyster farmers in the area worked to recover their gear and assess the damage caused by the historic Category 4 Hurricane.
I experienced the tail-end of Michael from my campground in Virginia. As Michael, which had slowed to a tropical storm at that point, brought rain, heavy wind, and tornadoes to the Middle Neck of Virginia, the dogs and I sheltered in a campground bathroom with fellow campers (and their dogs and cats). We made it through the storm fine – though I second-guessed how smart it was to spend the night in the trailer even after the tornado warnings ended. We lost power and water for only a few days, but other parts of the county took longer.
With a few weeks left in the Atlantic hurricane season, hopefully we’ve seen the last of major storms. Coastal communities continue to recover and some are still trying to recover from last year’s hurricanes. Just in case you’d like to help, here are a few options to aid those impacted by hurricanes Florence and Michael:
- Oyster South with the Pensacola Bay Oyster Co. are selling shirts to raise funds for oyster farmers impacted by Hurricane Michael in the panhandle. Click here to order a shirt and note #PanhandleProud with your order.
- The Red Cross always accepts donations to assist with all hurricane relief. Click here to support Red Cross efforts.
Links cited above:
- Wakulla Mystique Oyster Farm. https://www.facebook.com/wakullamystiqueoysterfarm/
- Mazzei, P. (Oct. 12, 2018.) For a struggling oyster town, Hurricane Michael may be one misery too many. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/12/us/fishing-communities-damage-hurricane.html
- McCausland, P. (Oct 22, 2018.) Hurricane Michael may have dealt a deadly blow to Florida’s nascent oyster farms. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/hurricane-michael-may-have-dealt-deadly-blow-florida-s-nascent-n922356
- Berman, M., Freedom du Lac, J., Hedgepeth, D., and Rosenberg, E. (Oct 12, 2018). Hurricane Michael aftermath: Storm leaves death, devastation across Southeast. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/10/12/hurricane-michael-updates-cleanup-and-recovery-in-the-aftermath-of-a-deadly-storm/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6c37c1d7921f.
- Oyster South “Panhandle Proud” shirt for sale. https://www.oystersouth.com/merchandise/panhandle-proud-t-shirt
- American Red Cross Hurricane Relief donation page. https://www.redcross.org/donate/hurricanes-2018-donations.html/