'Ain't no hurricane going to stop Joe Patti's': Pensacola landmark rebounding from Sally

Colin Warren-Hicks Pensacola News JournalPublished 7:00 AM EDT Sep 23, 2020Joe Patti’s Seafood bore a beating,

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Joe Patti’s Seafood bore a beating, but the iconic Pensacola seafood market expects to survive the hit dealt by Hurricane Sally.

“We got it on the chin,” said Frank Patti Jr. about storm damage sustained by his family’s business. “But it wasn’t a knockout punch.”

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Storm surge from the hurricane last week rushed into Joe Patti’s and filled parts of its facilities with upwards of a foot of water. The business lost "hundreds of thousands of dollars" worth of perishable seafood, according to Joe Patti’s seafood buyer Mike Parker.

“We lost all of our perishable items,” Patti Jr. explained. “The water rushed through here, and the water was 85 degrees. So we didn’t take any chances with anything. All the product had to go. The flood is major. The wind is going to be significant, too. But the product was significant also. So it’s a big event here.”

The floors and the walls of the office used by Patti Jr.’s father, Frank Patti Sr., had be completely replaced along with several other structural components of the Joe Patti’s warehouse.

“We have to work through. But we’re bigger than the event, OK?" Patti Jr. said. “We’re going to come back bigger than ever. So look out. That’s all I can tell you."

Shrimp boat captains devastated by Hurricane Sally

However, it's likely a different story for the fishing boat fleet that docks behind the Joe Patti’s warehouse. Seven of the nine shrimp boats — which are primarily captained by Vietnamese immigrants, many of whom lack maritime insurance — were ravaged by the hurricane.

Standing on the wharf behind Joe Patti’s on Tuesday morning, it looked like a battleship had turned its guns on the small fishing fleet.

Where there had been docks, scraps of driftwood bobbed in the shallow water. Shrimp boats with punctured hauls sat on the bottom of the harbor. One was capsized, and another had clearly been blown up and onto the shore.

With the one exception of Joe Patti’s namesake vessel, the Capt. Joe, all the fishing boats docked behind the business are independently owned by their captains.

“The boat is all we have,” Capt. Linh Tran said, standing on the wharf while looking down at his tangled trawler on the deck of his wrecked vessel, the St. Anthony.

“We have no insurance,” Tran said. “This is my only income. My family depends on it.”

Tran, 60, has been a shrimper working his nets in the Pensacola Bay for the last 26 years.

He came to the United States in 1975 and said that out of the seven captains who lost their boats in the storm, six of them were Vietnamese immigrants.

“It caught us by surprise,” Tran said. “On Sunday, the weather forecasters said it was coming through New Orleans. On Monday, they said it would go to Biloxi, and by Tuesday, it was too late to move the boat. It was too windy.”

Before Hurricane Sally made landfall, Tran did his best to prepare for the powerful winds that struck Pensacola hardest Wednesday morning.

“I came here and put 12 extra ropes on my boat,” he said. “But it was still too strong. It couldn’t hold it.”

The docks behind Joe Patti’s splintered in the storm, and the shrimp boats hit pilons, each other and the concrete wharf, Tran said. The St. Anthony came to a final rest listing to its portside and leaning against the wharf with a 2-by-7 hole in the starboard side of its haul. 

“We are waiting for FEMA. We are waiting to be declared a disaster because we don’t have any money,” Tran said. “I hope FEMA can help take my boat out of the water. I think there is a hole on the other side too.”

Besides the Capt. Joe, only one other boat called the Capt. James, made it through Sally still operational, Tran said. 

“I was very luck,” said Capt. James Nguyen, captain of the Capt. James.

Where Nguyen’s boat didn’t make it through Sally unscathed, he did manage to keep her from the bottom.

The boat's fiberglass was punctured by an unknown object, leaving a large hole near its waterline. But Nguyen managed to construct a temporary plywood patch to plug the leak and prevented a total loss.

"Very lucky," he said.

'Ain’t no hurricane going to stop Joe Patti’s'

Back inside the Joe Patti's building, Patti Sr. sat at a desk Tuesday that had been setup up for him — in what normally would have been his business’s sushi area — as he oversaw remediation efforts. 

"All this was in the front office up here,” he said, pointing to his supplies in his makeshift office. “The girls — mostly women — took control, and well, hell, I was happy as hell. They didn’t ask no questions; they put it together for me.”

The oldest member of the family business, Patti Sr. added that he had no doubt that he'd be back open soon.

“This is Joe Patti’s, established in 1930,” he declared. “Ain’t no hurricane going to stop Joe Patti’s.”

Referring to an enormous American flag that typical flies at the front of their main warehouse, Patti Jr. said, “When the flag is flying, we’re back open.”

Colin Warren-Hicks can be reached at colinwarrenhicks@pnj.com or 850-435-8680.

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