SHELL BEACH, La. - Ice is a precious commodity among commercial fishermen in St. Bernard Parish. And since Hurricane Katrina, it’s been a scarce one.
“It’s sort of like white gold. Cold gold,” explained F.J. Campo, owner and operator of Campo’s Marina in Shell Beach. “If you have a boat that holds any amount of ice, you can’t get any down here. You can’t fill it up. You can’t get what you need.”
The bulk ice shortage makes it even more difficult for parish officials and fisherman to swallow the local government’s expensive – and unsuccessful – plunge into the ice business.
One plan was to take over a towering private plant, Amigo Ice House, near the Bayou Loutre Bridge. The area was devastated by Katrina’s floodwaters and the owners of Amigo never reopened. So in August 2011, the parish secured a community development block grant to resurrect the icehouse and paid $282,000 for the building and the land.
Even then, the prospect of the parish competing with local ice suppliers drew a mixed opinion from the local fishing community.
“I don’t see where the parish should have gotten into an icehouse. At all. It makes no sense,” said longtime shrimper Nicky Mones. “It was a bad purchase. Economically, it was a terrible purchase.”
Mones was among those who thought the parish should have looked for a private operator instead of competing against local businessmen.
The idea was hatched under the administration of former Parish President Craig Taffaro. When Taffaro was defeated by current President Dave Peralta in late 2011, the building remained untouched.
Former St. Bernard Recovery Director Michael Dorris said that when the previous administration launched the icehouse project under the strict guidelines of the federal grant process, it looked like a winner.
Dorris said the plan was hatched with required community input, as required by the grant, and the engineering firm hired to oversee construction determined that repairing the old building would be feasible and cost-effective.
But when construction bids came in significantly higher than expected – beyond what was approved in the grant – the parish went back to the drawing board.
“You can only go on the best information at the time from the experts you hire to advise you,” Dorris said. “When I left the previous administration, the engineer said it was smarter to repair rather than replace the facility.”
A subsequent engineering review revealed some bad news: the previous plan to refurbish the old icehouse and put it back into commerce was not economically feasible.
That left the project in limbo.
“What the engineering firm concluded was that it would actually be cheaper to start from scratch and build a new house, rather than try to use the existing platform to retrofit that for a modern icehouse,” parish Chief Administrative Officer Jerry Graves said.
As Graves and the new administration studied what it could do with the crumbling eyesore, they discovered more bad news. Federal CDBG block grants must be used for the original stated purpose, or the money has to be refunded.
“It had a pretty sizable price tag on it as well,” Graves said. “We’re kind of married to the property now, and we’re going to make the best of it, but as far as the logic in selecting that property originally, I’m not really sure where the previous administration was going with that.
Now the parish is looking into using the land to build an icehouse from scratch, but only using the plant during emergencies such as a flood or hurricane.
“We’re not happy that we’re stuck with the building or the property, but again, we’re going to make the best of it and go forward with this emergency facility,” Graves said.
But the icehouse wasn’t the parish’s only misadventure in the ice business.
After Katrina, Shell Oil Company donated two industrial ice machines to the parish to help the local seafood industry get back up and running.
By the time Taffaro was elected to guide the parish’s post-storm recovery, Dorris said the two machines were located at a parish maintenance yard on Paris Road. After some repairs, the machines were briefly put into operation at the road yard.
But the location, far from the fishing villages of the lower parish, was impractical. Commercial fishermen rarely used the ice, so the administration decided to move the machines to seafood docks along the bayous at Hopedale and Delacroix.
Parish records show that the machines were leased to two local seafood dock owners at no cost, but the machines were never hooked up and never used.
Graves said that when he went looking for the machines on behalf of the new administration, he found that they had been destroyed during Hurricane Isaac in August 2012.
Campo said the machines, which were housed on top of steel shipping containers, never stood a chance.
“Isaac comes along and they wind up in the marsh somewhere,” Campo said. “They’re gone, basically gone. Destroyed. And we still have no ice.”
Graves said the destruction of the machines by Isaac eliminated one last-ditch idea by the parish to resurrect the Amigo icehouse by placing the new machines on the roof of that old building.
“The ice machines being destroyed pretty much put a damper on any prospect of that happening,” Graves said.
Parish records show that while the ice machines were leased at no cost, the leases required the dock owners to keep the machines insured. Graves said the parish has written letters to both men to check on the insurance proceeds, but got no response.
Graves believes the insurance was never purchased.
“We have not heard back from them.” Graves said. “We believe they were not insured and so, at this point, we’ve simply handed over the matter to our legal department.”
So now the parish government’s forays into the ice business have left it with no ice machines, no insurance proceeds, and a hulking ice plant slated for demolition.
“If you take the icehouse project and the machines into account,” Graves said, “we’re about $1 million into it and right now all we have is a vacant piece of land with an old battered icehouse sitting on it.”
Meanwhile, fishermen like F.J. Campo are left shaking their heads at the missed opportunities.
“I guess it’s what you would call a catastrophic screw-up on the parish’s part,” Campo said. “We spent a lot of money and we got nothing for it. Nothing.”
But like the generations of resourceful bayou dwellers before him, Campo said the fishermen will figure out a way to survive, whether from a killer hurricane or the parish’s fiasco in the ice business.