Biloxi, Miss., recovers from damage caused by Hurricane Katrina

Beauvoir, the final home of Jefferson Davis, lost its porches in the hurricane. Still recovering, it reopened in June.
Beauvoir, the final home of Jefferson Davis, lost its porches in the hurricane. Still recovering, it reopened in June. (Beauvoir)
By Andrea Sachs
Sunday, December 20, 2009

With a rich and vibrant history stretching back hundreds of years, Biloxi could pick up its story anywhere along the timeline.

1699: The French arrive and make themselves at home.

1763: The English take over.

1908: Biloxi becomes the first city in Mississippi to host a Mardi Gras parade.

1969: Hurricane Camille hits.

1992: The inaugural "floating" casino opens.

Yet for most residents, the narrative begins -- or reboots -- on Aug. 29, 2005, the day Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast.

"Everything used to be expressed as 'before Camille' and 'after Camille,' " said Richard Flowers, curator of Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis's final home, which is still recovering from the storm. "That is now true of Katrina."

I arrived in Biloxi unsure of how to handle Katrina. Though four years had passed and the good times were rolling again, I couldn't ignore the natural disaster that had seriously impaired the region. On the other hand, I didn't want to be a voyeur, a post-hurricane chaser. I quickly discovered that I could look without exploiting, ask without prying.

"You're reminded of Katrina wherever you go," said Debi Thomas, spokeswoman for the Hope Community Development Agency, which runs multiple services for hurricane victims. "Every time you look outside your window, you know that a lot is missing."

Having never seen Biloxi pre-Katrina, I didn't know what had filled the gaps. Driving along Beach Boulevard, I was easily lulled by the surrounding scenery: the calm Gulf waters lapping against sand as soft and white as chalk, leafy spaces interspersed with homes of subtle grandeur and hulking casinos beckoning with their illusory promises of big wins. Along the median, images of wildlife sprang out of dead tree trunks, an art exhibit at 45 mph.

Looking beneath the surface, though, I realized that the plows weren't simply replenishing the beach but were returning sand that Katrina had tossed around like confetti. The empty plots had once held houses that were demolished but never rebuilt. The dead trunks were debris from the storm, transformed into sculptures by a Mississippi chain-saw artist. And the casinos, well, they're still courting Lady Luck, but only eight of the nine were fortunate enough to rise from the shards.

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