In the Path of the Storms: Bayou La Batre, Coden, and the Alabama Coast

Jun 2, 2008

This degree of cruelty at the hands of government was not to be matched again until 2005, when the citizens of Alabama looked to FEMA and other government agencies for aid after Katrina.

Frye Gaillard is recently the author of Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement That Changed America (2004) and Prophet from Plains: Jimmy Carter and His Legacy (2007). Gaillard, a Mobilian, is now, after a long career in Charlotte freelancing and writing for the Observer, living in Coden, Alabama, and is writer-in-residence at the University of South Alabama. In the Path of the Storms may be the twenty-third or so book by Gaillard, but it is a debut book for a new Alabama imprint. Pebble Hill at Auburn has for years been doing superb work in humanities outreach programs around the state and has now begun publishing Pebble Hill Books, books of Alabama interest, with the University of Alabama Press. This is the first.

Gaillard has here collaborated with photographer Sheila Hagler, who provided the photographs for John Sledge's books on Mobile's cemeteries and ironworks, and Peggy Denniston, a teacher in Grand Bay. This attractive book is published in paperback in a 10- x 12-inch format, so the photos are large enough to be seen clearly. And they do tell an important part of the story. Hagler has shot or gathered photos of many of the citizens of this coast, Caucasian, African-American, Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese, at work and at home, cleaning oysters and at the helms of their boats, and, sometimes, in front of homes that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

In fact, this volume was largely inspired by Denniston's co-edited book, Eyes of the Storm: A Community Survives After Katrina, photography and poetry by the middle-school students of Bayou La Batre. This volume expands outward from that first one, with Gaillard interviewing survivors of Katrina and researching the history of what we might call the Alabama West Coast. And there is quite a history.

Bayou La Batre was a thriving tourist destination at the turn of the twentieth century, and then hurricanes struck in 1906 and again in 1916 and 1925, and washed away everything.

From 1925 until the seventies the coast poked along, most residents earning a living in the oyster, shrimp, or crab business, catching or cleaning and canning. In the 70's Asian refugees came, Vietnamese boat people and the survivors of the killing fields of Cambodia and Laos. These industrious Asians joined a community about 90% white and, to everyone's credit, race relations and ethnic tolerance remained cordial.

The crisis the natives thought was coming in 2004 was a proposal to gentrify Bayou La Batre, to build condos, marinas, and upscale restaurants. This might have happened, but on Monday morning at 6:10 a.m. on August 29, 2005, Katrina blew in, and the surge destroyed a huge percent of the towns of Bayou La Batre and the mostly African-American Coden. Two thousand of the 2,300 residents were displaced; 25% left permanently. If there is to be rebuilding, how shall it proceed? Houses high on expensive pilings? Houses two miles from the water, on higher ground? Now, again, the area stands at a crossroads. Most abhor the developments at Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Some would like a kind of artist's colony, to cohabit with the seafood industry. Provincetown, Massachusetts, is invoked. Some few would just like the prosperity, even Orange Beach-style. The future is not certain.

But Gaillard has done a fine job of recounting the history, from the earliest French settler, Jean-Baptiste Beaudreau dit Graveline, who "married" an Indian. Their son, Jean-Baptiste Beaudreau, led an extraordinarily adventurous life, finally earning the distinction in 1759 of being executed by being broken on the wheel, "the only time this grisly and medieval instrument of torture was ever to be used on American soil."

This degree of cruelty at the hands of government was not to be matched again until 2005, when the citizens of Alabama looked to FEMA and other government agencies for aid after Katrina.