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

By Andrea Sachs
Sunday, December 20, 2009; F06

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.

Unlike New Orleans, Biloxi does not offer an organized Katrina tour, but Brian Rivers, volunteer coordinator at Hope CDA, graciously agreed to take me around town. (The nonprofit organizes volunteer projects for visitors who want to log some hours.) To help me visualize the flooding, he steered us past a home with a sign affixed to its porch marking the water line. I'd need a 15-foot ladder to touch it. Along the Gulf, he pointed out pylons poking up like matchstick heads, the remains of marinas once lively with leisure boats and fishing vessels. The outline of a structure along the water memorialized its former tenant, President Casino. Winds of up to 130 mph swept it off its barge, blowing it over the highway and onto a hotel across the street. Lesson learned: The state now allows casinos to be land-based, rather then exiling them to the water.

"There was so much history in Biloxi along the coast that was destroyed," said Rivers. "But a lot of the museums and marinas are rebuilding."

Chua Van Duc, a Buddhist temple on Point Cadet, showed no evidence of its tussle with Katrina. In the parking lot, a small rock garden fanned out with paths leading to Buddha sculptures. Inside the temple, brightly colored paintings portrayed the story of Buddha, and on the altar, a giant Buddha sat cross-legged before pyramids of oranges and other offerings.

Strains of chant filled the air, and I followed the sounds to the front door, where a small man dressed in earth-toned robes and a brown wool cap appeared. With little prodding, he told me how the temple had opened the weekend of the storm, a celebration that drew 50 monks from out of town. When the water started to rise, they squeezed into a small attic, where they waited for eight hours. "The water came within one inch of the attic," he calmly stated and returned to the present, inviting me to a Friday service held in English.

It seemed that no matter where I went -- casinos, restaurants, museums, docks, beach -- Katrina edged into the picture. At Mary Mahoney's, a heralded restaurant that reopened 8 1/2 weeks after the hurricane, photos of the flooding adorn the walls. A pair of signs near the hostess stand mark the water line for Camille (mid-thigh) and Katrina (me on tiptoe stretching my arm high over my head and still a finger short).

At Beauvoir, my guide kicked off the tour with before-and-after images of the historic buildings. Before: The main residence of the Confederate president boasted grand porches and a sweep of stairs. After: no exterior accouterments, plus water damage to the walls. Before: Davis's small private library in pristine condition. After: rubble. Ditto for the old Confederate soldiers' hospital that was converted into a museum and library in 1957. The new presidential library and museum, built in 1998, lost its entire first floor in the wave surge, including about 1,500 artifacts. A handful of salvaged pieces displayed in the trailer-turned-visitors-center now relay two stories in one viewing. A sterling-silver coffee urn, for instance, shows off the Davis family's fine taste in serving pieces, while its mangled shape demonstrates the Godzilla strength of Katrina.

Amid all the loss, Beauvoir made some gains, too. New wildlife -- a gator named Beauregard Jr., two fox families, two coyotes and jack rabbits from Texas -- inhabits the 52-acre property. More impressive, the site's stewards were able to peel back the layers of paint and upholstery from four renovations and return the property to its original interior design, circa 1848. "If there was anything good that came out of the storm, it's that the house is now more accurate than it's ever been before," said Flowers.

The Davis residence reopened last June, and the new museum, built farther from the , should be completed in two years. Other cultural institutions are also in the midst of repairs. The Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art is housed in a temporary location until its cultural complex, designed by Frank Gehry, is finished. (The first phase, with an African American art museum and an exhibition gallery, is scheduled to open in November.) The Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum will return in 2011, though its schooners still set sail for afternoon cruises.

The casinos, however, wasted no time getting back up and running. To be sure, everyone needs an escape, even a visitor who experienced Katrina only after the fact. On a recent evening, the Beau Rivage was pumped up on optimism, the occasional roar of a winning hand adding to the excitement. Settled at a penny slot machine, I was on a fierce losing streak, my credit dropping like a thermometer in a meat locker. But then I reminded myself: I was in Biloxi, a town making a comeback after a big loss. And I threw more money into the machine.

Details: Biloxi, Miss.

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