Biloxi, Then and Now

This past weekend, my wife Jo Ann, our friend Sharon and I spent a nice weekend in Biloxi.  We took the RV and stayed in a park right across from the beach.  Like any trip to Biloxi, it involved good food, good times, a little gaming and a couple of trips to the beach.  Biloxi is one of those places that we all seem to have good memories of.  People have been streaming into Biloxi for fun and relaxation on the beach since before the War For Southern Independence.  It is a familiar place. If you were from South Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, Biloxi was the closest “beach town”.  I can remember my parents taking me to Biloxi when I was a kid. Later Jo Ann and I would take our own kids a few times.  It was close and it was affordable.   It was close enough and cheap enough that you could get off work on a Friday afternoon, start talking about ‘what are we doing this weekend’ and when someone said “Let’s go to Biloxi!” your answer usually was “Let’s go!”

Jo Ann and I did that several times in the days before we had children.  We could just pick up and go. You could be there in a couple of hours.  You didn’t need a reservation because there were enough Mom and Pop motels, hotels and beach cottages that you could always find someplace to stay.  U.S. Highway 90 (Beach Boulevard) runs right along the beach from Gulfport, through Biloxi, to the Ocean Springs bridge.  All along the beach it was jam packed with motels, restaurants, bars, souvenir places and t-shirt shops. Places with names like Sharkheads, Gulf Breeze Cottages, Lighthouse Inn, Sea Oats Motel and Broadwater Beach Resort.   Everybody had a favorite place in Biloxi. A favorite place to stay, a favorite place to eat or a favorite place to party.

One thing that made Biloxi special was the fact that it was the original “Sin City”.  Its heyday was from the early 1940’s through the mid 70’s.  Casino gambling was illegal and the entire state of Mississippi was “dry”.  You couldn’t even buy a beer. But that didn’t stop Biloxi from having open, albeit technically unlawful, gambling halls, bars and strip clubs. That is why it was known for years as the “poor man’s Riveria”.  That is also why being the Sheriff of Harrison County used to be the most lucrative elected offie in the State of Mississippi.  But even after that era ended, Biloxi was still a big party town.

Another thing that you always noticed about Biloxi was the fact that the ‘tourist’ places were commingled with large stretches of residential neighborhoods right along the beach. There were so many beautiful antebellum and Victorian houses, shaded with live oaks and magnolias,lining beach boulevard, facing the beach and the Gulf just beyond. You could ride along Highway 90 and admire the beauty, wondering about the history they represented and daydreaming about how nice it must be to live right on the beach, with the awesome view and the Gulf breeze gently blowing  day and night.

There have been a lot of changes in Biloxi over the years, some planned, some not. In the early 1990’s, big time casino gambling came to town, giving Biloxi another tourist niche as the largest gaming venue in the country outside of Las Vegas.  New hotels and big casinos began to dot the waterfront. Hurricanes have always been a danger in along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  Biloxi suffered at least 4 major hurricanes between 1855 and 1947, back in the days before storms even had names.  In 1969, Hurricane Camille hit Biloxi head on with 175 mph winds and a large storm surge. She was the first Category 5 storm to ever make landfall in North America.   Camille devastated the Biloxi/Gulfport area, killing 27 people in the process. Reports were that there was not a single structure on the beach between Pass Christian and Ocean Springs that was not destroyed or damaged.

It was a hard blow, but people on the Coast are a tough, resilient bunch.  The clean up and rebuilding started almost immediately.  Homes and businesses damaged by the storm were repaired.  What was gone or too damaged to repair was rebuilt.  Sometimes even the hurricane damage was incorporated into new ventures.  In Gulfport, an 80 foot tug boat named Ease Point  washed ashore, coming to rest 200 feet inland along Highway 90.  The family that owned the property where she came to rest saw an opportunity.  Rather than remove the boat, they renamed it S.S. Hurricane Camille and built a gift shop next to it and were open for business less than a year after the storm. If you went to Gulfport over the next 35 years, you definitely remember it:

.S.S. Hurricane Camille

One of my most vivid childhood experiences happened about that time. Around 1971 or 1972, when I was about 9 years old, my family passed through the Gulfport/Biloxi area on the way to a vacation in Pensacola.  Those were the end of the pre-interstate days and we had to drive right down Hwy 90. While the debris was gone and much had been rebuilt and repaired, the thing that struck me most, even at that young age, was the trees.  All up and down the highway, the live oak trees along the road were literally full of clothes, towels, bed sheets and linens which had become entangled there when places they came from had been blown away two years earlier by Camille.  It definitely made and impression on me.

Biloxi had weathered the strongest storm in American history and survived. While there was still work to be done, within a couple of years, Biloxi was back and open for business. And for the next three decades, Biloxi was that eclectic, groovy little redneck beach town where motels and souvenir shops shared the beach with stately old homes, churches and some huge floating casinos.

Then, on August 28, 2005,  Katrina hit.  After striking a glancing blow to New Orleans, which destroyed the levees and caused massive flooding and the resultant  great loss of life, she barreled head-on into the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  Katrina hit Biloxi right in the gut, with Category 3 winds that lasted for 18 hours, a 28 foot storm surge and 55 foot ocean waves. Biloxi, protected from Katrina’s wrath by only a sand beach and a four lane highway, was absolutely defenseless. Homes and businesses which had survived Camille, which had become a benchmark for most locals, weren’t just damaged by Katrina. They were just.. well, gone.  235 people lost their lives.  It is estimated that nearly 100% of the structures along the coast, within 3 blocks of the beach, from Pass Christian to Ocean Springs  were destroyed or sustained catastrophic damage.  The damage was so widespread and so total that then Gov. Haley Barbour said the Mississippi Gulf coast looked like “an American Hiroshima.” Many businesses and homes that had not been completely blown away were crushed under huge casino barges which were torn from their moorings and washed inland. Many people thought Katrina meant the end for Biloxi and with good reason.  The before and after pictures show the extent of the devastation.

Camille Memorial and Church of the Redeemer, Biloxi
The Camille Memorial and Church of the Redeemer


Santini House

The Father Ryan house

Tullis House, crushed under the Grand Casino

The Sharkhead store

Grass Lawn historic home


St. Claire Catholic Church

Seaton House

Gulfside Assembly Church


The President Casino sitting on top of what used to be the Holiday Inn

With the exceptions of Edgewater Malll and the Gulf Coast Coliseum, almost everything within 2 to 3 blocks of the beach was destroyed. Not damaged, destroyed. And many times, there wasn’t even much left to clean up. What the wind and storm surge knocked down, the flooding and ocean waves washed away. This often resulted in one of the iconic scenes of Katrina in Biloxi. All along the beach, you could find a set of steps leading up to a house that was no longer there.

Nine years later, Biloxi has rebuilt, but not as fast and and as extensively as it did after Camille. There are motels, restaurants, amusements, convenience stores and souvenir shops. The casinos are open, as are the hotels. Some of the pre-Katrina casinos are back in business and others have been replaced by new operators in the same spot. All of them are land based now. Jet Ski rentals and miniature golf are up and running. There are places to stay and things to do all up and down Beach Boulevard, but the “old Biloxi Beach” is gone, probably never to return like we remember it.

The striking thing is that if you drive from Gulfport to the Ocean Springs bridge, everything you remember about “old” Biloxi is not there anymore. The local motels and cottages have all been replaced by national chains or high rise condos.

Many of the restaurants have been replaced by Waffle House, which seem to be on every other block.

Even the S.S. Hurricane Camille is gone, bulldozed by its new owners when the property was sold. The Broadwater Beach Resort, The Oceanarium, Fort Maurepas,Fun Time USA, Grand Casino Gulfport, and all but one of the Sharkshead souvenir shops are gone. You pass many empty parking lots and clean slabs, which cause you to play the “I wonder what used to be there” game. Like this abandoned lot across from the RV park:

Or this one down the road. The parking lot is big and I think there used to be a grocery store or a large pharmacy located here, but its hard to remember now:

Even somethings that are new remind you that something is missing. This is a little snowball stand on Beach Boulevard at Veterans. Nice little set up, but the Airstream is sitting on a 50×50 slab in the middle of a large concrete parking lot. So you know that whoever owned whatever was here before decided not to rebuild.

One of the Sharkhead stores is back in business.

The beaches are open and one of the cool things about the recovery is the artwork on display. Many of the trees along Hwy 90 were broken off or damaged by the storm. Someone with a lot more creative talent than me has turned them into some beautiful ocean themed sculptures.


But for me, the most striking and the saddest thing about post-Katrina Biloxi is the loss of all those beautiful old homes. Blocks and blocks of beachfront neighborhoods are just gone, never to be replaced. And many of these were homes which survived not only Camille, but many other storms without names. In their place are empty lots and FOR SALE signs that have sprouted up like weeds along the side of the highway.

“” />

These pictures are from a two block stretch on Beach Boulevard. There are only two houses left, one on each block, surrounded by empty lots with old driveways and slabs.

These are the places next door to each, where someone’s homes once stood.

 

Some things catch your attention when you least expect it. For me it was these two stone lions, silently guarding a house that is no more.

I don’t know how old the house that stood here was, but judging from the neighborhood, it could have easily been built in the late 1800’s. And it makes me wonder how long those lions stood as silent sentinels guarding the front door. They saw storms come and go, probably even Camille. They probably watched as generations of kids grew up, played in that yard, got married and moved away. They may have waited, perhaps in vain, for some young man to come home from San Juan Hill, France, Iwo Jima, Normandy, Korea or Vietnam. They no doubt protected their owners for many, many years. But, in August, 2005 the were powerless against a natural disaster named Katrina. Now they seem to wait silently, wondering when, or if, their owners are coming back. Maybe they never will.

I’m not sure what separates the recovery after Camille from the one after Katrina. Maybe many of the owners didn’t have the money to rebuild. Maybe they didn’t have the stomach for it this time. Maybe they saw a demolished structure and a clean lot as a sign it was time to move on or move inland. Maybe the economy after Katrina wasn’t as vibrant as it was 35 years ago. We may never know.

The only thing for sure is, that for many years to come, some of us will drive down Beach Boulevard and think, “I wonder what used to be there?”

The Biloxi Lighthouse, still standing in the same place since 1847.

Advertisements