'Big shrimping family' in Florida left homeless by Hurricane Ian

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[October 07, 2022]  By Rod Nickel

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) - Ricky Moran, a shrimper who worked and slept on the boat he captained out of Fort Myers Beach, lost both a secure livelihood and a safe place to live when Hurricane Ian roared into southwest Florida and smashed the trawler he calls home.

The Category 4 storm lifted the craft from its moorings like it was a toy and left it in a twisted heap on shore along with a half dozen other battered boats, most flipped on their sides or with the hulls facing the sky. Moran now finds himself without a safe place to live or a means to make a living.

It is a plight shared by dozens of others who work on trawlers that ply the warm Gulf waters off southwest Florida in search of shrimp, an important industry in a region known largely for tourism.

"This ainít my first rodeo but I ainít never seen anything like this in my life. I never seen shrimp boats tossed like this," he said, gesturing at a tangle of damaged boats left by Ian, which killed more than 100 people in Florida and caused tens of billions of dollars in property damage.

Southwest Florida is the center of the state's pink shrimp industry. Trawlers off Fort Myers Beach and other port towns in the area trap the crustaceans in nets for sale to restaurants, grocery chains and directly to consumers.

Trawlers from Lee County, which includes Fort Myers Beach, harvested 3.9 million pounds of pink shrimp worth $12.5 million in 2021, or 43% of the state's total catch, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Moran said he stayed on board his boat through the storm, spending a harrowing night, during which a fellow worker had half a finger chopped off when wind slammed a door shut.

The 150 mph winds and huge storm surge quickly swept trawlers over the dock, where they crashed into each other.

Luckily, Moran said, all the Fort Myers Beach shrimp workers he knows survived.

A week after Ian, Moran was still sleeping on his damaged boat. Every morning since the storm, he scrambles over the wreckage and crawls through an opening between two other vessels to commiserate with fellow shrimp workers at the marina.

About 60 of them are living on their damaged boats or in tents, without toilets and showers, and scrounging for food and water.

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Shrimpers, who are living in tents and damaged boats after Hurricane Ian struck last week, gather outside a seafood market in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, U.S., October 5, 2022. REUTERS/Rod Nickel

Sherwin Beters, 40, from Guyana in South America, worries that he does not qualify for government help, since he is in the United States on a work visa. About 20 other Guyanese shrimpers are stuck in the same situation in Fort Myers Beach, he said.

"Sleeping on the boat is a chance we are taking because all the boats could topple on one another any time now, they could flip," Beters said.

In good times, shrimpers work on a short-term basis, with a captain and two rig workers splitting a share of the revenue from the boat, usually owned by a company, Moran said. He planned to head for Mobile, Alabama - another center for Gulf shrimping - hoping to find work there.


Two companies, Erickson & Jensen Seafood and Trico Shrimp Co, own most of the boats at Fort Myers Beach, employing some 300 people, said Anna Erickson, whose family owns part of Erickson & Jensen. Only three of her companyís 11 boats are still afloat.

"Weíre a big shrimping family," Erickson, 36, said. "These people are lifers. This is really a tragedy."

It will take "a whole lot of money" to repair the dock and put the boats back on the water, she said.

Many of the boats, some of which are 60 feet long, were uninsured because premiums are unaffordable, said Joel Andrews, 66, part of the Jensen family that partly owns Erickson & Jensen.

Michele Bryant, 58, who cooks and picks shrimp on the boats, was sleeping outdoors in the marina until finding a tent this week. She doesnít want to check into a shelter because her belongings are still on a boat.

"Most people have homes," she said. "We donít have homes. We live on the boats."

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Fort Myers Beach; additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Frank McGurty and Diane Craft)

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