Life beyond Katrina for a family of St. Bernard oyster men

ST. BERNARD PARISH, LA (WVUE) - Doogie Robin, at almost 90 years old, proudly wears an oyster dipped in gold around his neck.

"This is a real oyster," Doogie said.

It's a symbol of his special connection to the seafood industry.

"We've been fishermen all of our lives," he said.

"I think we go back to some of the first fishermen that ever hit town," Brad Robin said.

They have a long and colorful history. The Robins are one of the founding families of St. Bernard Parish. Historians trace the family's roots in lower St. Bernard to around 1780.

"First they moved to Shell Beach, and after a length of time, they moved to Yscloskey," Doogie said.

From the beginning, they lived along the water and fishing became their way of life.

"It was shrimp first and then fish. We only had about five seine crews down here at the time catching fish," Doogie said.

Seine fishing is one of the earliest forms of fishing, where nets are thrown out by hand.

"It was about five or six men in a crew. They fished without equipment and had to paddle to their destination," Brad said.

Their skills were passed from one generation to the next.

"You realize we're probably six generations now in this industry," Brad said.

By the end of the 19th century, the Robins supplied markets and restaurants in New Orleans with the seafood that would later make the city famous for its cuisine. In 1947, Doogie started Robin Seafood dealing in oysters.

"I took my daddy in when I was 12 years in the business. I eventually bought another place, and that's when I took the rest of my brothers in and my sisters. They worked in the shucking house," Doogie said.

Like the family's history of commercial fishing, they also have a history of defying storms dating back to the Hurricane of 1915.

"Now, I've been here when they never had a name for a hurricane. I had a cousin of mine that had a bar down in Hopedale. His wife was named Hazel, and she was a rough character. We named the first hurricane Hazel, and that's how they started getting names," Doogie said.

In 1953, the National Hurricane Center officially began naming storms, and Doogie was there to see each one that affected St. Bernard.

"I have never left from here for a hurricane," Doogie said.

"When the weather got bad, they moved to higher ground, and that's a tradition," said Dan Robin. "They always rode it out. They would just get on their boats cause they always lived on the bayous down here, and they'd load all the family in the boat and go to where there's a ridge and tie the boats up to the trees. That's where they'd ride out the storms."

On Aug. 28 of 2005, one day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the National Weather Service issued a bulletin stating "powerful hurricane with unprecedented strength."

But even news of a catastrophic storm headed their way wasn't enough to convince the Robins to evacuate.

"Well, let's put it this way. Every hurricane that ever hit here, I didn't leave. Why would I leave now?" Doogie said.

Doogie, along with his brothers, retreated to the only thing they'd relied on for decades - their oyster boats.

"I brought all of our boats up to the Violet Canal. That was the only harbor we had, and I spent Hurricane Katrina in the boat in the Violet Canal," Doogie said.

"It started getting pretty bad, and I lost sense of time. Me and the dog were in the center room of my house, and he called me up and said, 'honey, you got a boat? Make sure you got a boat.' I said, 'yeah daddy, I got a boat.' He said, 'the waters coming up,'" Don Robin said.

The levees broke, and water began pouring into St. Bernard Parish.

"I saw it coming down the Violet Canal. I knew the levee had broken because they had a swell of about 6 or 7 feet high coming down the Violet Canal to where our boats were tied up," Doogie said.

Don, still on the phone with Doogie, could hear in his dad's voice that trouble was headed their way.

"I told him to stay on the boat. He said, 'I got to get to my truck.' His truck was parked on the levee," Don said.

"I saw the wave coming down the bayou, and I had my truck parked on the levee. I got over there and pulled my truck up on the hill. I went for the boat, but the boat went out on me, and I missed it. It came back at me again, and that's when I grabbed it and I swam to the boat. I got up on that boat, and I looked back. I ain't seen my truck no more. It was gone," Doogie said.

The flooding had just begun. For hours, pounding rain and intense wind ravaged St. Bernard. Nearly every structure flooded, killing 163 people and stranding hundreds more on their rooftops. The Robins not only survived the storm, but they helped rescue so many in the days after it passed.

Nearly 3 weeks later, the water receded and reality set in.

"The canals were full of debris with homes, cars and power poles. We went to our building, and we walked around puzzled. What happened? What are we going to do?" Brad Robin said.

"There was nothing left," Doogie said.

The Robins admit that they were worried about the future.

"When we came back, the brothers all sat down, and we said, what shall we do? We don't have a business. We don't have anything, but we do have a backbone. We have what our fathers and grandfathers gave us, which is the knowledge of how to start over. That's what we did," Brad Robin said.

Of the seven boats in their fleet, they had to rebuild three of them. Now, 10 years later, a brand new boat - The Lady Robin - is being added to their dynasty. It replaces their first boat, The Big Bad John, named after Doogie's father.

"The Big Bad John was about $50,000. This boat is about $500,000," Brad said.

Today, The Lady Robin makes her first run down Bayou La Loutre. Brad Robin Jr. is behind the wheel while brothers Brad and Don enjoy the moment with their dad.

"It should last us hopefully as long as the Big Bad John," Brad Robin Jr. said.

To rebuild their oyster beds, the Robins now use crushed concrete from the slabs of homes lost during Katrina.

"We start  at 5:30, right when daylight breaks, and we load two barges and two oyster boats," Brad said. "We are averaging about 200 tons a day. We put it in the water, and we do that for about four months, and then we stop. The main thing is, what we are trying to do is build back reefs," Brad said.

The idea is, spat will attach to the concrete, and in three years, those oysters will be dredged and sold on the market.

Back at the dock, they're about six months away from a rebuilt processing plant and a place to store their oysters. Katrina, without a doubt, knocked them down, but these are proud bayou people who refused to give up.

"It didn't beat us. We're here," Brad said.

"You lose the battle, but you win the war. Our lives have been like that through the years. We've been through one battle after another. Whether it's a hurricane, or an oil spill, if you keep at it and you work hard, you're going to win the war," Don Robin said.

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