Gulf Coast oyster festival, resilience remain amid Hurricane Michael, water litigation

By David Pendered

APALACHICOLA, FL. – The 55th Annual Florida Seafood Festival is still on for Friday and Saturday. Damage from deadly Hurricane Michael surrounding the town, and the never-ending litigation with Georgia over water flow to the bay, aren’t enough to stop a party that’s a way of life.

Boss Oyster, streetfront

Boss Oyster remains standing, but closed, after Hurricane Michael added another layer of storm damage to the structure perched along the Apalachicola River. Credit: David Pendered

“Living on the Gulf Coast, hurricanes are something that happen and are part of life down here,” Cassie Dortch, a native of the Florida Panhandle, said to describe the resilience of area folks.

There’s no way to overstate the destruction inflicted by the hurricane. Suffice to say that images of the area don’t come close to capturing the visceral reaction to the loss of life, property and possibly an entire lifestyle. For starters, consider the festival goes on even though a main route to town, U.S. 98, is closed because Hurricane Michael erased a town 35 miles away – Mexico Beach. Many visitors will endure a lengthy bypass to reach and depart Apalachicola.

These are just some of the reasons the Annual Florida Seafood Festival must go on, according to Dortch.

“The festivals are reminders of why we enjoy being on the Gulf Coast,” she said, “and we need that now more than ever.”

The seafood festival likely will lift spirits as folks stroll sidewalks through a town facing hard times. The seafood industry once provided a good living in a region that had seen its relevance, and revenues, decline as the 19th and 20th centuries wore on. First the railroad arrived to take the place of the river for transport of timber and cotton. Then the crops became less viable, according to a report on the city’s website.

Tamara's, apalachicola

Some of the shops and restaurants in downtown Apalachicola appear ready to host those who come to town for the 55th Annual Florida Seafood Festival, on Friday and Saturday. Credit: David Pendered

The days of a big seafood harvest are long gone. So is most of the fleet that once fished Apalachicola Bay, and with the boats went many jobs that paid well to harvest the catch, process the seafood, pack the goods and distribute the finished packages.

Florida has laid the blame on Georgia for the decline of the seafood industry. Florida contends that metro Atlanta consumes so much water that not enough flows into Apalachicola Bay, where fresh river water reduces salinity enough to give oysters their trademark flavor and to repel predators of oysters and other table fish.

Sometimes a fisherman will be quoted in a media report observing that the oyster beds weren’t helped by the state’s decision to harvest heavily after the BP oil spill in 2010 threatened to kill much sea life. But, mostly, the problem is blamed on disputed shortfalls of freshwater from Georgia.

Decades of bickering and litigation haven’t resolved the impasse. Now, the states await action from a new moderator appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court to recommend a resolution. The justices are expected to enact whatever final recommendation is provided by the special master they appointed Aug. 9.

Three years could pass before such a recommendation is released, Jud Turner told the state House/Senate Ag Issues Summit in August. Turner is the former director of the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, who’s now a lawyer in private practice. Turner said predicted three years could pass if the special master orders more hearings. Two years could pass if the special master simply reviews existing documents, according to a report published in issuu.com.

Buddy Ward, Sons, apalachicola

The landmark Buddy Ward & Sons Seafood shop in Apalachicola appears to have avoided major damage from Hurricane Michael. Credit: David Pendered

The Supreme Court issued an order naming Senior Judge Paul Kelly, Jr., of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, to take up where former Special Master Ralph Lancaster left off. The court granted Kelly the same broad leeway granted to Lancaster and Kelly has yet to take any action that’s been recorded on websites overseen by the Supreme Court or the Tenth Circuit.

The two men may share a similar appreciation for things of the coastal environment.

As such, they may bring an appreciation for a place like Boss Oyster. The seafood restaurant opened in 1991 and has become a repeat destination for many who travel the Forgotten Coast. The place is closed due to damage from Hurricane Michael and the website advises to watch for updates.

Truth be told, baring structural damage, Boss Oyster didn’t seem to suffer much damage from Hurricane Michael. It looked weathered before the storm. It looks weathered after the storm. Perhaps just a bit more so.

Lancaster resides in an historic seafaring town, Portland, Me. He had opined that there’s no way to resolve the water flow issue to Florida without including the control of water in Georgia rivers by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Kelly moved the West as a young man and built his life and family there. However, as the son of New York judge, he has appreciation for Long Island Sound and still spends many summer days aboard his 46-foot trawler on Long Island Sound, near his birthplace, when he’s not at his offices in Denver or Santa Fe, according to a report by one of Kelly’s former law clerks published in fedbar.org.

 

Franklin County, Fl., sheriff deputy, apalachicola

Franklin County, Fl. Sheriff Deputy Stella Bryant said the Apalachicola area was spared the worst of the devastation that Hurricane Michael visited upon parts of the Florida Panhandle. Credit: David Pendered

 

Lady Louise, 2018, apalachicola

The Lady Louise (right) remains at dock along the Apalachicola River waterfront after Hurricane Michael, in October 2018. Credit: David Pendered

 

Lady Louise, 2016, apalachicola

The Lady Louise, the more distant boat, appears headed for the bottom of a tributary of the Apalachicola River in October 2016. Credit: David Pendered

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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