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They rode out Ian on shrimping boats. Now they fear their livelihood is destroyed

By the time these shrimpers knew Hurricane Ian was headed to Fort Myers Beach, it was too late to leave.
Shrimpers David Newcomb, aka One-Eyed Dave, 62, center, and David Hutchins, 59, aka Sandbar Dave, right, visit on the deck of the shrimping trawler Lexi-Joe on Friday, Sep 30, 2022, at Erickson and Jensen Seafood Packers in Fort Myers Beach.
Shrimpers David Newcomb, aka One-Eyed Dave, 62, center, and David Hutchins, 59, aka Sandbar Dave, right, visit on the deck of the shrimping trawler Lexi-Joe on Friday, Sep 30, 2022, at Erickson and Jensen Seafood Packers in Fort Myers Beach. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 1

FORT MYERS BEACH — Shrimp Boat Lane is a crook in the middle of San Carlos Island. Inside pulses the heart of a storied fishery.

But with little warning and punishing winds, Hurricane Ian shredded it.

Huge swells tossed shrimp boats into the mangroves and washed away docks. Jesse Clapham walked through what was left Friday morning, sweat soaking the back of his black T-shirt.

“My dad was a fisherman. His was a fisherman,” said Clapham, fleet manager for Erickson and Jensen, a seafood and marine supplies company. “This is life-changing.”

Just three of the company’s 12 boats are still in the water, he said, and one has a hole in the side. Clapham is sure he can patch it.

What to do with the others, however, is overwhelming.

The rest of the boats lay scattered across the shore, hulls exposed to the sun and rigging tangled like an enormous bird’s nest.

Shrimping trawlers remain displaced by storm surge into stands of mangroves at Erickson and Jensen Seafood Packers on Friday, Sep 30, 2022, at Fort Myers Beach. The company’s fleet of 12 shrimping trawlers were heavily damaged as Hurricane Ian made landfall overnight on Wednesday.
Shrimping trawlers remain displaced by storm surge into stands of mangroves at Erickson and Jensen Seafood Packers on Friday, Sep 30, 2022, at Fort Myers Beach. The company’s fleet of 12 shrimping trawlers were heavily damaged as Hurricane Ian made landfall overnight on Wednesday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Joined by a handful of coworkers, Clapham, 47, gathered tools and set to work repairing the flooded engine of a front-end loader, so he could clear debris. A mash of rubble fringed the Double E, a 96-foot, steel-hulled shrimp boat left listing sharply to port on the ground.

Clapham’s head mechanic, Jerry Richards, 54, had stayed onboard during the hurricane with a captain and the captain’s wife and five kids. He watched the swelling sea overtop his Chevy Silverado, parked nearby on land. The waves lifted the Double E onto an old dock, before the surge rushed back out, he said. The force caused the ship to lean so far over that they decided to climb down a ladder and off the vessel Wednesday night.

“When they said it was going this way, it was too late to do anything,” Richards said, recalling forecasters’ predictions for Hurricane Ian. He had avoided evacuating to Tampa, where he worried his mother’s home would face intense storm surge in Town ‘N Country. The Erickson and Jensen crew hadn’t even had enough time to drive all the boats up to a safer spot in the Caloosahatchee River before Ian descended.

Normally, Clapham said, the fleet would be in Texas around this time — but gas was too expensive to make the run this year.

From left: assistant fleet manager Jerry Richards, fleet supplies manager Scott Wilson, fleet manager Jesse Clapham and shrimper Steven Maxey discuss future plans at Erickson and Jensen Seafood Packers on Friday, Sep 30, 2022, at Fort Myers Beach. The company’s fleet of 12 shrimping trawlers, including the 96’, 200-tonne Double E, in background, were heavily damaged as Hurricane Ian made landfall overnight on Wednesday.
From left: assistant fleet manager Jerry Richards, fleet supplies manager Scott Wilson, fleet manager Jesse Clapham and shrimper Steven Maxey discuss future plans at Erickson and Jensen Seafood Packers on Friday, Sep 30, 2022, at Fort Myers Beach. The company’s fleet of 12 shrimping trawlers, including the 96’, 200-tonne Double E, in background, were heavily damaged as Hurricane Ian made landfall overnight on Wednesday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Just beyond the old fuel docks, rigman Dave Newcomb, who everyone knows as “One-Eyed Dave,” was still on the smashed-up, 78-foot Lexi-Joe early Friday, unable to climb off because of a bad hip. He walks with a limp and the aid of a single crutch. The storm had trapped him on a different boat, where the constant smashing of wind and water prompted him to call for help over the radio.

Another crewman, Dave “Sandbar” Hutchins, climbed over from the Lexi-Joe, first grabbing Wishbone, Newcomb’s German shepherd-cur mix, then Newcomb himself. Hutchins walked through waist-deep water in the boat’s cabin, he said.

Since the storm passed, they’ve stayed with another crew member on the grounded boat. Neither had a house on land to retreat to before Ian. At the time they committed to riding out the hurricane, they expected just a few feet of surge from the storm. The wind was already gusting by the time they heard a new projection of up to 18 feet, said Hutchins, 59.

The fishermen are eating Top Ramen and peanut butter sandwiches. They’re using buckets as bathrooms. Newcomb drained the last can in his 18-pack of Busch, meant for the aftermath, Friday morning.

They have plenty of food, water and Gatorade, Hutchins said, along with a working generator. His boat had just stocked up on supplies and motored away for a long fishing trip off the Dry Tortugas before Ian kicked up. They turned back after a couple of nights with several thousand pounds of shrimp, now rotting in the Lexi-Joe’s stores.

Shrimper David Newcomb, aka One Eyed Dave, 62, tugs on a cigarette where he lives on the trawler Lexi-Joe on Friday, Sep 30, 2022, at Erickson and Jensen Seafood Packers in Fort Myers Beach.
Shrimper David Newcomb, aka One Eyed Dave, 62, tugs on a cigarette where he lives on the trawler Lexi-Joe on Friday, Sep 30, 2022, at Erickson and Jensen Seafood Packers in Fort Myers Beach. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Sun-lashed and squinting, they take cigarettes on deck. Hutchins climbs over the boats, onto the roof of a damaged building and then down a ladder to see other workers. Friends hassle them from below.

“Sandbar!” one captain screamed from a parking lot. (Years ago, Hutchins ran a boat aground, hence the nickname.)

The satellite radio works on board, playing Styx’s “Come Sail Away” mid-Friday morning. So does the television, beside a hand-painted sign: “Old fishermen never die. ... They just smell that way!!”

They watch the national news broadcasts replay images of Ian’s wreckage along other stretches of coast.

“Everyone but us,” said Newcomb, 62.

“We have yet to see any news coverage, pictures of this area,” Hutchins said.

Before the hurricane, he said, he was saving up. He had $500 from the company and was owed another $500 by a friend. He was banking on maybe $3,000 or $4,000 from the latest shrimp run. He scheduled an appointment Oct. 12 to get $2,800 dental implants.

Now, everything is in flux.

He figures he and many of the other shrimp workers on San Carlos Island are out of a job. There are few unscathed boats to crew, and even if they could go out on the Gulf of Mexico, where would they unload and freeze shrimp? Those places are all heavily damaged.

Neither Newcomb nor Hutchins have called for a rescue. On CNN and Fox News, Newcomb said he learned about other people being plucked from water and rubble, and he figures they are in worse shape than him. He’s dry. He isn’t alone.

“I’m not a high priority,” he said.

He can reel off a list of hurricanes he’s lived through: Andrew, Opal, Frances, Charley, Irene and Harvey — which he thought was bad until Ian.

“This is my last,” Newcomb said. “Never again.”

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage

HOW TO HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims.

FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.

THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.

POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.

WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?

WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.

SCHOOLS: Will schools reopen quickly after Hurricane Ian passes? It depends.

MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

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