The Starfish Restaurant has all the elements of your typical ramshackle island eatery: There's the front porch awning that leans in on itself, propped up by posts that jut out to the ground like crutches; the weather-worn, sky-blue paint job; the name taken from a sea creature and, of course, the smell of grease and fried seafood.
Owner Jerry Vedros sits at a back table sipping iced tea. "Business is getting really good now, especially weekends," he says. At 1:30 p.m., half the Starfish's tables are occupied with customers munching on plate lunches and po-boys. "Sometimes it's like this all day. At times we're so busy we can't keep up. This year I think is going to be one of the best years we've had in the past seven or eight years. It's getting back to where it used to be."
The benchmark Vedros refers to is pre-2005, before Hurricane Katrina upended the small fishing camp community of Grand Isle. For more than a century, the thin, 7.3-mile-long strip of land 50 miles due south of New Orleans has been a prime vacation spot, fishing lure and low-rent rendezvous for everyone from 19th-century privateer Jean Lafitte to well-heeled Crescent City bohemians to nearby oil industry roughnecks. One of the state's last barrier islands, Grand Isle is home to some of Louisiana's only true beaches, and its exposure to the Gulf is both its main attraction and its prime vulnerability.
Katrina pummeled the island, knocking out its bridge to the mainland, covering its roads with sand and debris and uprooting every utility pole on the island. The storm splintered adjacent Elmer's Island, and in the mayhem following the storm, it was falsely rumored and reported that Grand Isle had suffered a similar fate.
On the heels of Katrina came floods from Hurricane Rita. Then, three years later, just as the island had begun to recover, Hurricane Gustav bore down on Grand Isle, washing beach dunes and large sections of levee onto Highway 1.
Visit Grand Isle today and it's hard to picture this kind of devastation. The beaches are surprisingly clean, the water offshore is blue-green, and both leather-tanned locals and tourists pale as the white sand flock to bask in the radiant sun and salty breeze.
A new toll bridge from Leeville to Port Fourchon opened recently and is set to start collecting tolls next week. The $166 million bridge is the only land link to Grand Isle and Port Fourchon and is part of a program to elevate all of La. 1 from Golden Meadow to the Gulf. Mayor David Camardelle is concerned the structure essentially will tax any Grand Isle resident who needs to get off the island to visit the nearest bank, drugstore or hospital. Instead of having toll booths, it will use "open road tolling," which requires travelers to set up toll tag accounts or buy one-time passes to avoid fines. Many fear the system will turn off Grand Isle tourists.
Rebuilding is a way of life here. Statistics show the island has been affected by tropical storms or hurricanes every 2.68 years since 1877, with direct hits occurring every 7.88 years. Katrina filled Vedros' restaurant with 4 feet of water, and Gustav caused more damage, some of which is still being repaired. "The good Lord does what he wants and no one can stop him," Vedros says. "I always say that."
To protect the island from future storms, the state and federal governments are spending $18 million on new drainage pumps and millions more on new, extra-fortified "geotube" levees. The tubes are made of geosynthetic material and are 30 feet in circumference and 200 feet long. They will be placed end-to-end on a 5-foot-high bed of sand and filled with compacted sand. In addition, 3 feet of sand will be dumped on top of the tubes, and grass will be planted on top to anchor it. The tubes will extend 6.5 miles and should provide more protection than the sand levees that washed away in past hurricanes.
Camardelle, a native who graduated from Grand Isle School with a class of 13 in 1974, has had to battle for state and federal funding for levee repair on Grand Isle.
The island also is set to see a wave of new public facilities. This year, Grand Isle plans to rebuild its fire department (currently housed in a donated section of an ATV shop), public library (now operating out of two book-filled buses parked in front of the tourism office), and school gymnasium. The projects come after a lengthy standoff with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which at first refused to fund any rebuilding projects located in a "V zone," areas deemed highly vulnerable to hurricanes.
Grand Isle also plans to break ground soon on a new civic multiplex, and late last month the state held a ribbon cutting for a new state-of-the-art wildlife and fisheries research facility on the island.
Jefferson Parish officials are putting out the word that Grand Isle is open for business. Earlier this summer, the parish launched a $55,000 "Grand Isle Alive" ad campaign, featuring billboards, radio ads, T-shirts, bumper stickers, banners and public television spots. The campaign also will include a Mardi Gras-style parade for Grand Isle's big annual Tarpon Rodeo, held July 23-25. Started in 1928, the International Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo is the oldest fishing tournament in the country, and more than 10,000 people are expected to attend this year's event.
With relatively inexpensive camp rentals, Grand Isle is capitalizing on competition with pricey condos on Florida's beaches and is having a bumper year for tourism. "I think that the [down] economy has helped us in a weird sort of way," tourist commissioner Josie Cheramie says. "Typically you have your ups and downs, but this summer's been steady." That's a relief to many businesses, which saw tourism drop as much as 50 percent since last year's hurricanes.
Mayor Carmardelle has been a consummate salesman for the island. Perched up on the balcony of the Bridge Side marina and general store one afternoon, he looks out over the water and asks, "Where else in Louisiana can you go and get all this? We've got some of the best trout fishing, you can catch shrimp and crabs right off the beach. The crabs are running up on the beach. This is paradise."
It's just after 6 a.m. and the sun is a bright red disc rising over the Gulf, illuminating the offshore oil-drilling platforms dotting the horizon. While a front has brought in a breeze — upsetting the calm waters ideal for fishing — there are still several boats fishing the shaded water along the jetties and oil platforms. Across the beach, surf fishermen cast for trout and crabbers set their doplines. Seagulls and pelicans, also catching the morning tide, call out from across the water. Brown pelicans, once endangered, are now in abundance, flying in formation and perching themselves on every available offshore surface.
Offshore, the water is clear blue. Porpoises surface, their backs rolling evenly just above the water. "Very intelligent animals," says fishing guide Jules Bellanger, behind the wheel on his 20-foot bay boat. Several times, he says he's witnessed the porpoises engage in a game with his clients. An unsuspecting fishermen will be reeling in a trout when suddenly the fish will start pulling back with an inordinate amount of strength. A porpoise will then emerge with the fish in its mouth, still on the line. If the fisherman stops reeling, the porpoise will let go and hold the fish on top of its nose, daring the fisherman to try to snatch it away from him. "They just want to play," Bellanger says.
Born and raised on Grand Isle, Bellanger has had his hands in several careers. He briefly tried commercial fishing, but found it too hard to pay the bills. Like many locals, he now works for an oilfield service company. When his company started asking him to take clients fishing, Bellanger decided to spin it off into a business, H&M Fishing Charter. "I run a boat, my wife runs a boat and my daddy runs a boat," he says.
Bellanger has seen a lot of changes to Grand Isle over the years, especially since Katrina, he says. Several local camp owners say Katrina and Gustav actually helped clean up the island — washing away old debris, as well as unsightly trailers and run-down camps. Bellanger sees it differently. "It got rid of a lot of history," he says. "Some of the oldest camps and houses got tore up, stuff that's been here as long as I can remember; it's just gone."
While there are vestiges of the storms — some boarded-up camps aren't yet repaired — there's more evidence of a building boom. According to the mayor, the island is now growing at a rate of about three homes a week, including new construction and rehab jobs. Grand Isle used to need only one building inspector; now, it has three. The island's population is rapidly nearing its pre-Katrina plateau of 1,500 people.
Much of the new development has been geared toward the upper-income brackets. You can now find million-dollar yachts parked at some of the private marinas, $350,000 condominiums that cantilever over the water, and some resort camps on the market in the $1.5 million range. Two new gated communities, slated for upper-income residents, are being developed.
This trend has created an issue for working-class families looking for housing. Vedros also owns a 16-room motel on the island and says all but three rooms are occupied by employees of his Starfish restaurant who rent at a weekly rate.
"It's very had to find a place to stay," he says. "A lot of really good people come down here that just can't find a place, or can't afford one."
Mayor Camardelle, now in his fourth term, acknowledges there's a housing pinch, exacerbated by property owners who find it more profitable to rent homes to weekend vacationers than to locals in need of housing. "This is a new challenge," he says.
An immediate concern on the island is hurricane season. Crews only recently began geotube levee construction across much of the island's Gulf side, leaving it greatly exposed through the current hurricane season. "This should have been done in the winter," Camardelle says. "Every day is a challenge for me to convince the government of the importance of Grand Isle. If we can dodge one more year in Louisiana without a major hurricane, we can really get some major work done with coastal erosion."
Camardelle is optimistic about Grand Isle's future and wants to build on the success he's had thus far with levee projects and with making the island a more attractive tourist destination (Camardelle is largely credited with cleaning up Grand Isle's beaches).
His vision for the future involves burying all the island's power lines, bringing in parades and planting a palm tree on every corner. "This'll be paradise," he says.
Nathan Stubbs is a staff writer at The Independent, an alternative weekly newspaper in Lafayette.