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After Hurricane Michael, a hunt for surviving oysters in Apalachicola

Published Oct. 22, 2018

APALACHICOLA

T.J. Ward's phone rang. Service had improved in the days since Hurricane Michael.

"Get another scrub brush and a squeegee," he told his sister. "The littlest one you can find."

The Ward family's 13 Mile Seafood Market smelled of bleach, so much it stung your eyes. He knelt in front of the open refrigerator, scooping out the silty marine mud. It was empty, as was the freezer that held crab and gulf shrimp, as was the glass case usually snowy with ice and draped with fresh grouper and snapper.

In good times, the market was a gathering place in Florida's most famous oyster town. In bad times, too. Friends from Pensacola came to put the shop back together. Shrimpers gathered outside, wondering when they might go back out on the water. But there was no place to process the shrimp, nowhere to put them on ice. Same for oysters.

The oysters. Apalachicola oysters had been T.J.'s whole life. And here he was again, at the point where man meets nature, confronted with the possibility of their ruin.

• • •

In April, in a special report called Shell Game, the Tampa Bay Times explained a confluence of problems that had rendered wild oystering in the area nearly extinct.

Apalachicola used to account for 90 percent of Florida's wild oysters, 10 percent of the nation's. In the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in April 2010, the fishery was declared a disaster.

And for almost 30 years, a freshwater war has raged with Georgia, resulting in a bay made of too much saltwater. That enables predators to sneak in and suck out the oysters' meat. For the most part, oysters on the bottom of the bay had been destroyed.

T.J., a fourth-generation oysterman at 30, had to find a different way. He started farming in 2017, using a high-tech system of poles and lines, cages and bags, hedging the Ward family's bet in case wild oystering never rebounded. It didn't make T.J. popular in Franklin County, a place where hunting and tonging was a hallowed way of life.

And now Hurricane Michael. The family's bottom leases were likely buried under silt, whatever oysters remained suffocated.

And the fancy equipment? The farmed oysters? He had 750,000 of them just over the county line. Plus, he had farmed oyster babies hiding out behind the family's oyster house, the site where workers have historically processed and bagged the wild oysters.

At that building 13 miles west of Apalachicola, the storm surge may have reached 15 feet. Hurricane Michael took down 100-year-old blocks of limestone, wrecked the shucking room, strewed equipment across the property.

The Wards had already rebuilt it in 1985 after Hurricane Kate, after Opal in 1995 and again in 2005 after Dennis came through.

"I had that place nice," said Tommy Ward, T.J.'s dad. "I thought I'd built it strong enough that it wouldn't get blown away."

He leaned against an 18-wheeler full of the Wards' remaining shrimp.

"The good lord is just humbling me. It's like a big bomb went off, I guess."

Tommy's daughter Sara looked over, worried. He'd been moving from shrimp house to retail store to oyster house, vague in that way you are when the movers have pulled away and it's just a sea of boxes.

• • •

The Wards rode out the storm together at Tommy's house, clustered in the living room. In his 57 years, Tommy had never evacuated for a hurricane, didn't think he ever would. But he would have liked for his 2-year-old granddaughter, Ryan, not to have been there.

He couldn't let her see how scared he was. During the storm, he went in his bathroom and looked out the window, watched pine trees falling and entire sheds blowing by.

After the storm, in the days that followed, Ryan and T.J.'s wife, Melanie, did get out of town. Melanie is six months pregnant. They are having a boy; they would name him Tate Vincent, for nearby Tate's Hell State Forest and St. Vincent Island, the place where T.J. proposed to Melanie.

At the Owl Bar, one of the few restaurants running, state environmental specialist Carrie Jones talked about when the oyster fishery might open back up. There are six regions but one testing lab for the whole state. They look at aerial photos to assess runoff and septic tank damage. They test the water and the meat, popping a dozen oysters into a blender and culturing the puree to check for harmful bacteria.

It would be a slow process, Wakulla County opening first, then St. Joe Bay and Indian Lagoon in Gulf County, and west toward the worst of the storm. Meanwhile, oyster farmers were assessing damage. Sixty-one miles east of the Owl Bar, Deborah Keller headed to her OysterMom leases in Apalachee Bay. She and her husband managed to sink only half of their oysters and equipment before the storm hit, filling the pontoons that keep them afloat with water, hopeful the bottom would keep everything safe.

Their equipment had come through alright, only a few messed-up cages. She had checked six bags of oysters already, the young ones faring better.

She pulled a seventh cage across the bow of the boat. She dumped the oysters into a bin on a card table. These were big ones, nearly market size.

Almost all dead. Oysters gaped open, their meat poached by entrepreneurial sea creatures.

She blinked back tears.

"I am so happy out here. I come at sunrise and sunset, and it's so gorgeous to me. I'm caring for a living thing."

But this, she said, is the kind of thing that makes you question everything.

• • •

T.J. drove down a dirt cut-through his family had used since he was a kid, connecting U.S. 98 to the oyster house. State Road 30 still had a couple of washouts and wasn't passable. He hopped out, unlocked the gate and pulled through.

The roof listed, cinder block walls tipped over, their hollow hearts exposed in rows of dark squares. His uncle's RV had been ripped into tiny chunks and rolled hundreds of feet inland. A dock that didn't belong to them lay in the saltwater-burned grass. The shucking stalls and coolers were gone, sinks piled up, exposed electrical wires undulating snake heads in the stiff breeze.

The night before the storm, T.J. and Tommy had gone out to the oyster house, collecting important papers, family pictures and sentimental items from Tommy's office.

"Take a good look at it," Tommy had told his son. "It may be the last time you see it like this."

T.J. changed his boots for sneakers and stood. Beneath his feet oyster shells crunched along with broken glass.

"It's hard to know where to begin."

The bulk of his farmed oysters were miles away in Gulf County, held under water by the system he'd purchased. He'd only managed a quick spot check so far but hadn't seen much damage.

At the oyster house, he had tens of thousands of babies stowed away for safekeeping from the elements and potential poachers.

He hopped off a splintered wall and waded out to dozens of demolished dock pylons. Attached to a cable just under the surface hung baskets filled with infant oysters. He unclipped one bag and poured them out.

They were shut up tight and glistening with bay water. Alive.

It was time for T.J. to get back to work.

Eve Edelheit contributed to this report. Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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