ALONG SCENIC U.S. 90, Miss. — I guess there’s something about pines and oaks lining the beaches instead of palm trees.
Those are the trees I grew up under as a kid in East Texas. The first time I visited the Mississippi Gulf Coast when I was in college, I fell in love with the fact those typically upland forest trees could reach the sea. It gives me a homey feel.
I made it a ritual when I got a car my junior year at LSU to spend a night on the Mississippi coast before finals started each semester. I can’t count the number of times I went there, passing the broad wetlands of the Jourdan, Wolf and Tchoutacabouffa rivers and exiting Interstate 10 to U.S. 90, passing stately homes along the waterfronts of Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian and Long Beach, then continuing into Gulfport and Biloxi, where those homes mixed in with kitschy beach businesses, restaurants and the Gulf-side casinos across from placid Mississippi Sound and the treelined barrier islands a few miles out on the horizon.
Who knew what was to come in a few years. There’s always that chance down here between June and November that there will be “another one.” In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina came calling, repeating Camille’s feat and then some.
My first time back was in 2008. Where homes stood, there were temporary trailers in many areas, rubble in places and cleaned slabs in others. I’ve only done occasional visits since then, but the decimated areas continue their comeback.
As only a casual, occasional outsider, it seems South Mississippians speak of Katrina in hushed voices. There’s really nothing to say to us visitors who knew the coast before, or really even to those just seeing it for the first time. As much progress has been made, scars are everywhere.
These lots seem like they’d be high in demand and fetch top dollar — lots with a view. But even 11 years out, signs with realtors’ smiling faces and phone numbers don’t seem to have done the trick. Perhaps red tape or insurance litigation is keeping things from moving forward if that’s still going on. I bet the memories are too fresh, too. Why work to rebuild a life in that spot?
There’s Treasure Bay Casino in Biloxi, which used to sit atop a barge in the Gulf of Mexico now is a building on the inland side of the highway. The piers that used to hold it form a rectangle that disappears off the sand into the surf.
The reminders are there, some more conspicuous. A memorial graces a corner of the Biloxi Town Green, where Main Street intersects the coast highway. The names of the dead and missing, grouped by city, are etched in the monument. Items residents found in the rubble or of other personal significance are congealed into an artistic mass in an attached glass case. The top of the memorial is 12 feet tall, the depth of the storm surge at that exact point.
Some reminders didn’t go over so well, I learned. Along I-10 at the exit to Bay St. Louis, there are giant concrete plates on the bridge embankment. At one time, they had Katrina’s high water mark painted on them. City officials didn’t like the possibility that such a reminder could scare away tourists and economic development. The Mississippi Department of Transportation painted over them.
There are much more understated markers along the coast that mark high water points. A list of addresses is available at the Biloxi Green memorial.
I went looking for a marker tied to my first memory of visiting Bay St. Louis. Trapani’s Eatery sits on North Beach Boulevard, facing the bay and the high bridge built to replace the U.S. 90 bridge to Pass Christian that was wiped out by the storm. Trapani’s, like the rest of Bay St. Louis took the storm surge’s full force and was obliterated.
The owners relocated temporarily but vowed to return to the bayfront. Six years later, They were back in their original home. Judging by the soft shell crawfish with Hollandaise sauce and stuffed flounder with pasta I had, it tastes like they never left.