'I knew I was going to die': Cameron shrimpers survive sinking boats during Hurricane Laura
LAKE CHARLES – As the strongest storm to hit Louisiana in 160 years howled and hammered him, Phillip “Rooster” Dyson Jr., held onto an industrial icebox on the back deck of his 50-foot shrimping trawler and prayed for daylight.
He thought of his four children and the rest of his family and realized he might not live to see them again.
“It was that point when you know you messed up but it’s too late to turn back,” Dyson, 36, recalled. “It was a living nightmare.”
Most everyone in lower Cameron Parish evacuated well out of the path of Hurricane Laura, which roared ashore early Thursday over the coastal town of Cameron, the parish seat, with 150-mph winds and wreaked a swath of destruction as far north as Shreveport. At least 14 people died in Louisiana and Texas during the storm.
But the shrimpers of Cameron did what they do each time a storm approaches: They motored their trawlers 30 miles inland, tied them to a pier at the Port of Lake Charles and hunkered down in their cabins to ride out the storm. Hurricane Laura, however, delivered a destructive mauling unlike any they’d ever seen, tearing boats from moorings, sucking captains out of cabins and sinking boat after boat into the channel.
Fifteen shrimping boats. Only five survived.
Fifteen shrimping boats tied up to wait out Laura. Only five survived, the rest sinking to the bottom of Bayou Contraband, the channel that cuts along the port. Remarkably, no one drowned. As Laura lashed at them and with rescue teams unable to respond, shrimpers and other boat captains performed daring mid-storm rescues to save each other from the violent squall.
Still, the ordeal dealt a serious blow to Cameron’s shrimping industry, already hobbled from past storms like Hurricanes Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008.
“Shrimping is the lifeblood of our parish,” said Scott Trahan, vice president of the Cameron Parish Police Jury, the local elective body. “Everybody’s family has someone who shrimps.”
On Wednesday night, as Laura strengthened in the gulf and headed for Cameron, Dyson drove his four children, mom, sister, niece and nephew to a WoodSpring Suites hotel in east Lake Charles, then he moored his trawler – christened “Daddy’s Girls” for his three daughters, ages 11 to 16 – to giant steel cleats on the port’s pier. His father, Phillip Dyson Sr., tied up his own 55-foot steel-hulled trawler next to his. It was the same drill the Dysons had done for Rita and Ike, without incident.
“I figured if I stayed with the boat, I’d have a better chance of saving it,” said Dyson, who earned his nickname as a youth by endlessly watching the John Wayne western, "Rooster Cogburn."
'I didn’t think we were going to make it'
As Laura’s winds mounted around 1 a.m., swaths of tin roof from a nearby warehouse crashed on the pier next to the boats. The wind screamed like a train horn and chunks of air duct systems from the warehouse crashed around them.
Ropes from Dyson’s boat snapped off and he and his dad scurried out of their cabins and retied them. Tornados ripped through the pier, demolishing a metal storage building and tearing through the boats. Dyson watched as one of the twisters pulled the cabin off a nearby boat and flipped its captain 15 feet into the air, then dropped him on deck. He survived.
Another boat belonging to his cousin, Clarence Dyson, ripped from its mooring and dragged another boat with it into the channel. Both boats went down in a foaming swirl, he said. No one was in them at the time.
Inside Dyson’s cabin, radios flew off shelves and a radar smashed through a window. He could hear his boat pulling apart. The storm’s powerful eyewall winds, the system’s most violent, were battering the trawler. “At that point in time, I didn’t think we were going to make it,” Dyson said.
'All hell was breaking loose'
John Minton, 36, captain of the MV Poncho, a 114-foot steel-hulled vessel used to clear out oil rig sites, was also moored along the pier. He watched the frantic dismantling of the shrimping fleet from inside his steel-lined cabin. He saw the Bad Attitude snap its ropes, smash into another boat and sink beneath the channel’s churning waves. Two more trawlers broke free and drifted away into the bayou. Soon, drenched shrimpers were showing up at Minton’s cabin door, many of them wearing life jackets. He let them in, around 12 in all, to ride out the storm, he said.
“All hell was breaking loose," Minton said. “It was like being in a movie.”
Lifetime shrimper Frankie Mock, 57, had worked on tugboats the past few years but recently purchased two trawlers to return to shrimping: the 50-foot Golden Eagle and the 78-foot Dara Mae. He planned to give the Dara Mae to his son so they could shrimp together, he said. Both were docked at the pier Wednesday night.
As the storm intensified, Mock, aboard the Golden Eagle, watched in horror as the Dara Mae broke loose from its cleats, spun away from the pier, crashed into another boat and sank. Then, the Golden Eagle snapped its ropes and began to spin and drift into the channel. Other fishermen yelled at him to jump off. Mock, who can’t swim, tied a rope around his waist and threw the other end to a group of shrimpers on a nearby boat. He jumped into the churning waters, now swelling with 5- to 6-foot waves.
“I knew I was going to die, I did,” Mock said. “When I jumped overboard, I knew it was over with.”
It took eight other fishermen to pull him aboard. They all retreated to the Poncho’s cabin.
At around 2:30 a.m., the shrimpers got a short reprieve as they entered the storm’s eye. Some said the winds subsided to a black, eerie calm. Others said the rain stopped but the winds kept whipping, relentless. Shrimpers scrambled to re-tie ropes and secure their boats. After around 30 minutes, the explosive winds were back.
Dyson spent the second half of the storm on the deck of his boat to keep an eye on the ropes. He hugged the industrial ice box, where he keeps his shrimp on runs, and hoped the ferocious night would soon yield to dawn. “We were praying for daylight,” Dyson said. “Once we made daylight, I knew we’d be OK.”
As the storm continued its relentless assault, Dyson’s thoughts shifted away from his own survival to that of his kids’, wondering how they were faring, whether the WoodSprings Suites was holding together.
“At one point in time, I forgot about everything else and wondered if they made it,” he said.
The aftermath of the storm they survived
Finally, as dawn approached, the winds began to slowly subside. Shrimpers emerged from their cabins and took in the destructive path left behind by Laura: tangles of steel frames on the pier, boats' outriggers bent like pretzels, cabins crushed or missing. Dyson's trawler had a 4-foot-wide gash on its port side and debris littered the deck. But it was still afloat.
As of Friday, Cameron, 30 miles away, remained mostly submerged by Laura’s storm surge. TV news images showed many of the shrimpers’ homes there completely underwater or simply gone. Dyson said he planned to rip out the bed in his boat’s cabin and install bunk beds so his kids and other family members have a place to sleep.
Most of Cameron’s shrimpers didn’t have insurance on their boats, so returning to their jobs will mean repairing their own boats by hand. On Friday, many of them got to work. But the future of the Cameron shrimping industry remained tenuous. Two of the town's three shrimp houses, which buys the product from shrimpers, also washed away.
“What people don’t understand about shrimpers: It’s not like they have a bunch of money,” said Minton, the Poncho captain who sheltered the shrimpers during the storm. “They’re relying on the next catch, trying to make it through the week … It’s a lot for them to have to come back from.”
Dyson said he wasn’t sure about the others but he knew he’d be back out hunting shrimp soon as he can. As long as he had his boat, he said, he had a chance.
“If we lose the boat, we don’t have a home, we don’t have a way to make a living or rebuild,” he said. “We took a gamble and the good Lord pulled us through.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.