GULFPORT, Miss. — The car creeps along mile after mile of nothingness along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, passing empty parking lots and rows of vacant yards overlooking sugar-white man-made beaches and a calm sea.
Where once sat antebellum mansions now sit clipped green lawns with magnolia trees and moss-draped live oaks, concrete slab foundations and grand brick steps leading nowhere.
“This is the boulevard of broken dreams,” said Rebecca Kremer Kajdan, 54, who was born and raised in Gulfport and has worked for five mayors. So when she drives to work at the newly built city hall here, she plays a memory game.
“I look at every lot and tell myself what used to be there,” Kajdan said, pointing out lost landmarks. “Ruby Tuesday was on this corner. Apartments were here. This used to be Shoney’s. This was a church. This used to be the spot where my parents had their first date. It was called Spider’s. The coolest bar on the coast. Everybody went there. Now it’s gone.”
“I never want to forget what was here,” she said. “I want to tell my grandchildren one day what used to be here. It was the most wonderful place in the world. And Katrina destroyed it. It scares me if I can’t remember. Because that’s what we have left of what was before: memories.”
On the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, the enormous eye of Hurricane Katrina made its final landfall on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The storm hit the mouth of the Pearl River, bringing with it winds of more than 150 mph, great walls of waves and 28-foot storm surges, hurling its warm breath counterclockwise. Anything east of where the storm landed was virtually wiped out. Whole towns were obliterated.
Highway 90, the Mississippi coast’s main artery, was broken. The storm buckled bridges like dominoes, swamped floating casino barges once forbidden from land and pushed them across beaches into seaside houses. It lifted hastily abandoned ship-cargo trailers off piers and slung them into towns, where they split open, filling the streets with the stench of rotting pork bellies and boxed chicken.
The worst toll: 238 Mississippians were killed.
Katrina’s scars are still visible from Highway 90, which hugs the Mississippi Gulf Coast, crosses the Pearl River and cuts through the seaside cities of Bay St. Louis, Long Beach, Pass Christian, Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, Gautier and Pascagoula. The wind and water may be gone, but Katrina’s reach remains.
“We caught the bad side of the storm,” said Billy Hewes, Gulfport’s mayor. “Our coast lost its physical history. The storm reduced it to kindling wood.”
Although much of the nation focused on the damage to New Orleans caused by levee failures, the immense destruction to Mississippi was caused by a direct hit from nature.
The storm, which sent hurricane-force winds 200 miles inland, left more than 100,000 people homeless, put thousands more out of work — the unemployment rate soared to nearly 25 percent after the storm — and caused at least $25 billion in damage, state officials said.
Ten years later, significant rebuilding has occurred along Highway 90. Downtowns have been transformed into what the state’s recovery commission calls a “Mississippi Renaissance.” Harbors have been rebuilt to better withstand future storms. Beaches and barrier islands once washed away have been restored. Last year, casino revenue topped $1.5 billion, beating the pre-Katrina haul.
“The recovery along the Mississippi Gulf Coast is remarkable,” said Gov. Phil Bryant (R). “Homes and public structures are rebuilt to more disaster-resistant standards, and businesses are open and thriving.”
There are new bridges, new fire stations, new police stations, new roads, new piers, new hotels, new libraries, a new baseball stadium.
In Pass Christian, the population has rebounded to 5,400, though that’s still 1,400 fewer residents than the town boasted pre-Katrina.
“Not bad,” allowed Pass Christian Mayor Leo “Chipper” McDermott during a ride down the city’s Scene Drive, where empty lots now feature historic markers instead of historic mansions. “There was one point we got down to 900 people.”
Some who evacuated the area have not returned because they can’t afford wind and flood insurance or meet FEMA’s new building-height requirements.
In Gulfport, a city of 73,000 in 2005, 9,571 houses were damaged or destroyed, said city administrator John R. Kelly. The town’s budget still has a $3 million hole in it, left by a casino that never reopened.
But Gulfport received more than $300 million in federal aid to rebuild, Kelly said. It laid miles of new water and sewer lines, built a $21 million police headquarters, upgraded 11 fire stations, replaced its harbor, restored 70 historic buildings.
Fifty new restaurants have opened in a hip downtown with streetscape urban art that is drawing millennials, he said. The city built loft spaces for artists.
“As bad as the storm was, and it was a horrible storm,” Kelly said, “what I would tell you 10 years later is I don’t think I could talk to a single person here at the time of Katrina who would not acknowledge they are better off after the storm.”
Ken Murphy kicked the overgrowth for snakes before walking up his driveway that leads to nothing but a vacant lot.
His little white house is gone. His mother’s house next door is gone. His brother’s house next to hers is gone. The whole neighborhood was once under 28 feet of water. Among the 20 people killed in Bay St. Louis: the mother of one of Murphy’s friends.
“It feels like it was yesterday and a lifetime ago,” said Murphy 61, an acclaimed photographer who had published a book, “My South Coast Home,” documenting the Gulf Coast and its mansions before they were torn to splinters. “I haven’t gotten my head around it because we haven’t come back like we should.”
Murphy, who wears his curly, salt-and-pepper hair combed back, is less bitter about Katrina than he is about what government officials did after the storm.
He contends that state officials stole a chunk of the land where his family’s restaurant was located so the city could build a seawall for its new harbor — an allegation the state denies. The restaurant, Dan B’s, was a beachfront place that had been owned by the Murphys since 1981 and was known for its roast beef, shrimp po’ boys and sauteed crab claws.
Ken Murphy and his brothers, Ray Murphy, 60, and Audie “Rock” Murphy, 59, had renovated the restaurant in June 2005, renaming it Daniel’s Southbeach. “Exactly 90 days later,” Ken Murphy said, “Katrina struck,” flattening it.
What followed was a protracted legal battle that Murphy’s family won last year when a jury awarded them $644,000. But the state has appealed the decision, contending that the land in question is part of the tidelands.
Murphy’s family argued in court that they had a deed proving that their land extended to the water’s edge, and that the state had claimed their property without due process.
“We sued and won,” Murphy said, “but they had already built the harbor. ”
Because of the time and cost consumed by the lawsuit and the seawall the city built, Murphy said, he has been unable to rebuild the restaurant on its original plot.
“We’ve been struggling for 10 years to reopen,” Murphy said. But he’s hoping for a symbolic rebirth this month.
“Our goal is to break ground on August 29,” he said, “the 10th anniversary of Katrina.”
In Biloxi, cars on Highway 90 whiz past the gleaming white Yacht Club, which overlooks a white beach with imported palm trees, past the hot-pink Sharkheads Biloxi Beach premier gift shop with a giant shark-tooth entrance, and past Beauvoir, the antebellum seaside home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, now restored to its original grandeur.
The highway winds past eight busy casinos — including the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Harrah’s Gulf Coast, and the Beau Rivage — with fine-dining restaurants and a championship luxury golf course. Traffic backs up at the intersection, with motorists waiting to enter the casino parking garages.
But the city’s new riches are not shared by everybody. Take a left at the Waffle House, cross the railroad tracks and enter East Biloxi, where roads are still not paved and vacant houses abound.
James Crowell, president of the local NAACP chapter, says many of the predominantly black and Vietnamese people who lived in East Biloxi left and did not come back. Rents have gone up.
“Economically, we had problems before the storm with high unemployment,” Crowell said. “The jobs haven’t come back.”
Shelia McIntyre, 50, who lives in East Biloxi, says her side of town is still suffering.
“It’s real rough on a lot of us. You still smell mildew. You can still smell sewage.” The place holds bad memories. “We lost the next-door neighbor. They were caught in their house,” she says. “For six months we lived in a FEMA trailer. I have COPD. I never smoked.”
Before Katrina, more than 5,000 Vietnamese immigrants and children of immigrants lived in East Biloxi. “The fishing industry was struggling before the storm. Then Katrina destroyed thousands of boats. Some boats landed in trees,” said Danny Le, Gulf Coast branch manager of Boat People SOS, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Bien Do, 75, an oyster dredger and shrimper, lived in his van for more than a year.
He had paid off his home, but he didn’t have insurance. “I didn’t have enough funds to rebuild my house,” he said through an interpreter. Because his income is lower after Katrina, he qualified for public housing, where he now lives.
“The multiple disasters have exposed a lot of injustices,” he said.
For Do and many of his neighbors, recovery from Katrina has been elusive.
Mike Burkart still doesn’t know how he survived the hurricane.
At the height of the storm, he and his mother were trying to help her brother, known as “the Birdman of Long Beach,” rescue 30 exotic birds, including macaws that the uncle kept in cages behind his house a block off Highway 90. Quickly, all three were trapped by rising water.
“I swam out of the front door,” Burkart, now 45, remembered.
For what seemed like eternity, he and his mother and uncle were tossed by the water. They found refuge in a tree, then on a floating house roof and, finally, on a pile of debris.
“We were in the Gulf of Mexico,” he marveled. “Houses were falling apart. Cars, metal, all of this is coming at you. There are a thousand ways to die in this thing. You can get stabbed, crushed.”
Burkart, a musician with curly brown hair and pale blue eyes, said that surviving Katrina changed him. He looked inside the eye of the hurricane and thought: “ ‘This is a power greater than man. And it is happening now. And I’m witnessing it.’ ”
“I realized we are so small. And all this material stuff meant nothing.” He vowed to change the way he was living — though it took years for him to make good on it.
For almost eight months after the storm, he was homeless. He bounced from Mississippi to Alabama to Oklahoma to Louisiana, staying with friends. He felt as though his life had been pulled into an undercurrent.
“I would say, mentally for a while there, I was really broken,” he said, “and my life got really chaotic.”
He got sick and lost weight. “I fell hard in terms of drugs,” he said. “For at least the first four to five years after Katrina, much of that was spent trying to cope.”
Finally, he gathered his strength and made a push for recovery.
“I haven’t had a drink or drugs in 5½ years,” said Burkart, who now lives in St. Bernard Parish, La. “I didn’t go to AA meetings. I just decided to take control of my life.”
Burkart, who plays the Hammond B3 organ, started his own band, Mikey B3, which he describes as an organ-based trio that plays “Gulf Coast rock ’n’ soul.” His music career is thriving. He fell in love with a beautiful woman. They are getting married Oct. 11.
Ten years after Katrina, he is standing on the vacant lot that used to be his uncle’s house. He retraces the perimeter of the house and explains where the front door used to be and where the bird cages were located in the rear.
This is the place where the storm nearly killed him, he said. This is also the place where the storm saved his life.