2018 Election Road Trip
This story was reported during our election road trip to states across the country ahead of the 2018 midterms. Check out all of our election coverage.
Two days after Hurricane Michael hit Apalachiacola, Florida, fifth-generation oysterman T.J. Ward was wracked with uncertainty.
"The damage in Apalachicola is the worst I've ever seen, and locals that are older than me and been through more hurricanes haven't seen it this bad," Ward told Here & Now's Robin Young.
Now, weeks after the storm, Ward and his family are trying to get their business 13 Mile Seafood back on its feet. Ward, his father Tommy and uncle Warren all say they plan to rebuild.
Inside the Wards' oyster facility, generators hum loudly and workers spray bleach and water solution to clean and sterilize the plant, which just two weeks ago was filled with mud and debris.
"You want it to be right, you're handling food," Tommy says.
The processing plant opens onto Apalachicola Bay, where oyster boats float idly. The local oyster industry was in decline before the storm — decades of water wars with Georgia lowered water levels and increased the bay's salinity. Climate change brought more storms, and the river fell victim to oil spills and sewage.
Outside the plant, a tired-looking Tommy complains of stomach pain.
"Just nerves," he says. "We're going to come back bigger, better, stronger."
But he becomes emotional talking about that comeback. He says he is still blessed, and that his family and his children fared well in the storm.
Tommy's brother Walter and T.J.'s wife Melanie sit outside the seafood store. Walter says he's been working in the industry for 43 years, and that the government isn't taking care of them, referring to the policies that have allowed Georgia to divert the Apalachicola River's water.
He says he recently bought about 400 acres of oyster leases, but because of the lack of water, the expensive leases didn't produce oysters. He lost the money.
Melanie says the oystering lifestyle makes her happy, and that she enjoys the customers and the water. But Walter interjects.
"It's just a matter of time," he says, tearing up while trying to talk about the future.
Thirteen miles up the bay, T.J.'s oyster house looks out into the Gulf of Mexico. It would be beautiful — if there was anything left. The house is missing walls and most of the roof. The wharf has collapsed.
He says he'll rebuild, though he has no insurance.
In the meantime, he has a small consolation: his nascent oysters. The ones from his aquaculture oystering business survived the storm. T.J. hopes that business will thrive, though he recognizes that it's not the future of the bay.
"A lot of people think that this water war is only about oysters," he says. "But it's a nursery for the Gulf."
He says he hopes that hatcheries can bring back some of the natural oysters the bay needs to help repopulate the region.
When asked about leaving, T.J. also becomes emotional. It's not something he's considering, he says, no matter how hard life gets. For one, he has a second child on the way. And he's left before, but never for good.
"I've left before and came back, and then I've left again and come back," he says. "So why leave knowing that I'm going to come back? It's just a great place."
This segment aired on October 25, 2018.