Hurricane Katrina came calling late in August 2005. It began in the Bahamas, made its way across Florida into the Gulf of Mexico and then hurled itself at the US Gulf Coast to create the most costly disaster in the history of the United States. The greatest loss of life occurred in New Orleans, but the greatest property damage occurred in the Mississippi beachfront cities.
View Biloxi, Mississippi Where Katrina Came Calling in a larger map
We began 2011 with a visit to the area and found that Katrina had left no scars on the most famous neighborhood in New Orleans, the French Quarter. As we passed along Bourbon Street, we saw no evidence of the deadly hurricane. Yet we found the reverse to be true when we arrived in Biloxi on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Katrina destroyed about 90 per cent of Biloxi. It hit Biloxi with a storm surge 27 feet high. The mayor of Biloxi described it as a tsunami. The governor of the state of Mississippi likened Biloxi, in the aftermath of Katrina, to Hiroshima.
Biloxi was the capital of French Louisiana until 1720, when French fears that something just like Katrina would occur caused them to move their capital to what they believed would be a safer city. Before congratulating the French on their foresight, please be aware that they moved their capital to New Orleans.
Biloxi’s main street is Beach Boulevard (US 90) and it runs alongside the waterfront from one end of the city to the other. Prior to the arrival of Katrina, both sides of Beach Boulevard were fully developed. On the beachfront side, casinos and restaurants were very much in evidence. On the opposite side, there were many antebellum mansions.
We toured one such mansion. Its name is Beauvoir and was the home of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, for the final years of his life. It subsequently became a retirement home for confederate veterans and, when the passage of time had removed these old soldiers from the scene, Beauvoir became the presidential library of Jefferson Davis. There is also a museum on site and the Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier.
The room used by Jefferson Davis as his bedroom has spectacular sea views. The sunsets are unforgettable as is shown by the one captured by Pat in the attached photograph. It is ironic to think of the defeated Davis spending his old age enjoying such beauty, when the victor of the US Civil War (Abraham Lincoln) had been murdered a quarter of a century earlier.
We also saw the bedroom of Winnie, youngest daughter of Mr & Mrs Jefferson Davis, who had moved into Beauvoir with her parents in 1879. Winnie was a great favorite at confederate rallies, which she would attend with her father in the 1880s. She even became known as “The Daughter of the Confederacy”. She then fell in love with a Yankee attorney from New York City. He was Fred Wilkerson and he travelled to Biloxi to ask Jefferson Davis for Winnie’s hand in marriage. Wilkerson’s family had strong abolitionist connections. The engagement caused such an outcry across the American South that the proposed marriage never took place. Poor Winnie died unmarried at the age of 34.
However, all of this history was of no consequence early on the morning of August 29, 2005, when Katrina came calling. The giant sea surge destroyed nearly all of the buildings on both sides on Beach Boulevard, and the Jefferson Davis house and its contents were severely damaged. The status of the house in American history has meant that much restoration work has taken place over the past five years, but few of its neighboring antebellum mansions have been so fortunate. Many such mansions have been demolished and the wreckage removed, leaving empty lots.
As one drives down Beach Boulevard, one sees on the northern side the occasional newly built mansion but mostly one sees empty lots for sale. On the opposite side of the boulevard, the beachfront side, one sees acres and acres of empty land containing mere traces of the foundations of the buildings that once stood there.
Admittedly, this emptiness is occasionally punctuated with newly built high rise casinos. For example, the new Beau Rivage Casino is very grand, but these new buildings are very much oases in the desert left by Katrina.
Some of the dead trees, killed by Katrina, have been converted into eye catching sculptures and remain standing at various places along Beach Boulevard.
We also met on Beach Boulevard a most unlikely survivor of Katrina, the Biloxi Lighthouse. Made of cast iron in Baltimore in 1848 and shipped around to Biloxi prior to its erection there, the lighthouse is unique in some respects. For example, it stands in the middle of a four lane highway and its lighthouse keepers have usually been female. I could have climbed to the top, but I feared that a combination of the 57 step spiral staircase, the eight foot ladder above that and the trapdoor above that would have defeated me. So I moved on with this thought in mind. That great videographer, Pat, should have filmed the arrival of Katrina from the top of that lighthouse. At 61 feet, she would have been just above the angry waves.