Mississippi’s Gulf Coast may have been knocked down by Hurricane Katrina, but its communities have made courageous comebacks.
My family vacationed at the Mississippi Gulf Coast in June 2005. We still laugh about memories created on that trip. But two months after our visit, a very unwelcome visitor, Hurricane Katrina, hit the Gulf Coast.
Coastal communities such as Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, and Waveland took direct hits as the storm made landfall. We stayed near Waveland, Miss., in a lovely two-bedroom condo. The hurricane took the entire point that condo–and so many others–rested upon in the blink of an eye.
Some of the giggles from our trip were made at the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport, Miss. Hurricane Katrina took that, too. Other attractions we enjoyed visiting–Gulf Island National Seashore, Beauvoir, and casinos–were heavily damaged by the hurricane.
But Mississippi’s Gulf Coast has rebuilt its infrastructure, attractions–although the Oceanarium did not come back–and hotels. While the number of annual visitors, 5.5 million, is less than the pre-Katrina 8 million mark, travelers are steadily coming back to the coast for its attractions, casinos, and beaches.
Your family this summer can enjoy these renewed attractions along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.
Beauvoir–The Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library
The president of the Confederacy simply wanted a quiet place to write and reflect, and in 1877, Jefferson Davis found that spot, Beauvoir, which he would eventually purchase. In addition to the main house, the site had several historical buildings, including the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library.
The library pavilion, Hayes pavilion, cistern, and kitchen were destroyed by the hurricane. The main house sustained some damage, but its elevation on eight-foot brick piers–a sort of antebellum air conditioning–helped to save it from the storm surge. A statue of Davis that was in the original presidential library made it through the storm, but more than 1,000 historical artifacts did not.
Visitors today can view reproductions of the cottages lost to the storm, and the new, larger presidential library that opened in 2013 is striking in its design that fuses modern with antebellum architecture. Varina Davis’ Rose Garden also has been reconstructed. Beauvoir hosts annual Civil War musters and other special events.
A larger visitor center reopened in 2011. Katrina destroyed the original building on the site, the Dantzler House, although several stained-glass windows from the house were salvaged and incorporated into the new center. In addition to visitor information, tourists may want to check out the 50-minute documentary, Katrina & Biloxi, that’s shown daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to get a real sense of how the area has come back from the devastation.
More of the Katrina story is shared during the 90-minute Biloxi Tour Train (also known as the Shrimp Train) experience, which begins at the lighthouse. Built in 1848, the landmark is noted for its line of female light keepers and its resilience against several hurricanes, including Katrina. Although the storm did $400,000 worth in damages, the lighthouse reopened to the public for tours in 2010.
Casinos are a major draw to the coast, and the 11 that operate today offer a wide variety of gaming, lodging, dining, and entertainment opportunities. The newest addition is Island View Casino Resort’s Beach Tower that adds 395 rooms in Gulfport and offers direct beach access. The Beach Tower opened in May.
Mississippi Gulf Coast communities are strung together like pearls on a necklace by U.S. Highway 90. That necklace was severely broken when the hurricane totaled two bridges on Highway 90: the Bay Bridge that connects Bay St. Louis to Pass Christian and the Biloxi Bay bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs.
A 28-foot storm surge devastated the bridge across St. Louis Bay. Two lanes opened in May 2007, and all four lanes of the two-mile structure opened to traffic in January 2008, 18 months after construction began. The bridge has come to represent the area’s rebirth, and each June, the Bay Bridgefest brings coastal communities together for a celebration of art, music, and food.
Winds up to 100 mph and a storm surge that reached 22 feet crushed the bridge spanning Biloxi Bay. Construction began in 2006, and the bridge was completed two years later.
Hurricane Katrina memorial
Dedicated to the 170 Mississippi Gulf Coast victims who died in Hurricane Katrina, the memorial stands 12 feet tall–about the height of the water during the storm surge at the Town Green. It was dedicated on Feb. 15, 2006, and is located across from the Hard Rock Casino in Biloxi.
Other more unusual remembrances are found throughout Biloxi in the form of wooden sculptures carved from the trunks of live oaks destroyed in the storm. You’ll see anything from angels to eagles to Jesus.
Sunk by Katrina, the new $8.98 million Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum opened in 2014 at Point Cadet. The 20,000-square-foot museum has expanded galleries for exhibits and artifacts. One of the main features is the NYDIA, a gaff-rigged cabin sloop built in Biloxi in 1898 that’s on display in the Grand Hall.
Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art
The museum that highlights the work of George E. Ohr, “The Mad Potter of Biloxi,” was under construction and only 18 months from completion when the Grand Casino’s barge that broke away from its moorings during the hurricane and the storm’s surge nearly decimated the site. Rebuilding began in 2008, with the Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center the first to open, and Phase I–including the stunning Mississippi Sound Welcome Center, as well as galleries for contemporary and African-American art–following in 2010. Phase II was completed in 2012 and included the Center for Ceramics. The “Pods” (John S. and James L. Knight Gallery) that provide a permanent home for the George Ohr exhibits opened in 2014.
A major exhibit, “Katrina + 10,” is currently on view through Labor Day at the museum. An exhibit with many facets, “Katrina + 10” uses various media to tell the story from the front line, highlighting efforts by recovery workers and volunteers. Admission is $10, with discounts offered to AAA members.
In addition, a weekly series of presentations by community leaders and agencies, Katrina Café, discusses the respective challenges and how they were addressed. Topics in July and August include Keesler Air Force Base (July 17), which sustained a staggering $950 million in damages, and the Salvation Army’s efforts (Aug. 7). The cost ($10) includes a boxed lunch and museum admission pass.
There will be several outreach events offered as part of this special exhibit, including a community-wide 10th Annual Katrina Memorial Observance on Aug. 29 at MGM Park. The time is tentatively set for 9 a.m.
Finally, a 48-page book packaged with a documentary on DVD is available at the museum and Port of Call General Store in Waveland.
When we visited Ship Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, the adventure began with a ferry ride to West Ship with dolphins playing alongside. We splashed in the surf, relaxed on the beach, and toured historical Fort Massachusetts, which dates to 1859.
In 1969, Hurricane Camille split Ship Island in half (now East and West Ship). Katrina almost completely submerged East Ship and wiped out the facilities on West Ship. Fort Massachusetts received minimal damage.
Today, 80 percent of this national seashore is under water, but the passenger ferries are running spring through fall to West Ship. The facilities destroyed by the 30-foot tidal surge have been replaced and the fort is repaired. But this lovely, fragile strip of beach remains susceptible to the elements and to recreational demands from its visitors.
Pay a visit this summer to the Gulf Coast and celebrate its recovery while remembering the devastating losses experienced 10 years ago.
Deborah Reinhardt is managing editor of AAA Southern Traveler.
July/August 2015 Issue
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