The Coast: 1 year later

Published 2:26 pm Wednesday, July 19, 2006

We’ve all seen acquaintances several days after a bad accident. They are healthy and strong, but the stitches, scabs and bruises look awful.

That was my impression when I visited our Gulf Coast recently to attend the Mississippi Press Convention at the Imperial Palace in Biloxi.

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind. The Mississippi coast will come roaring back. Bank deposits are up 30 percent and retail sales are showing healthy increases over pre-Katrina levels.

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According to the Mississippi State Tax Commission, Harrison County retail sales are up 28.7 percent over the last 11 months compared to the same period last year. Stone County is up 38 percent. Jackson County (Moss Point and Pascagoula) is up 44 percent.

The only county to show a drop is Hancock County, home of Bay St. Louis and Waveland, which is down eight percent. Given the unbelievable destruction of those two towns, a drop of a mere eight percent is nothing short of phenomenal.

I drove around Waveland and was stunned once again. Everything was wiped out. From the air, Waveland’s destruction is even more stunning. For a hundred miles along the coast, ninety percent of the buildings on the coastline were wiped flat. But in Waveland, the entire city was wiped flat, not just the first few blocks.

Today, Waveland consists of tents, trailers, metal huts and a few hardy houses. The city and county offices look like a makeshift military barracks, as do the schools. The local grocery market is in a rounded, metal military barrack type structure.

I kept wondering why anyone would stay in tents. Why wouldn’t they just move inland? I later got the answer. The tent cities are for the volunteers and rescue workers.

Bay St. Louis was next hardest hit. It still looks very rough, but numerous stores and buildings are up and running. The city is coming back to life slowly but surely.

Randy Ponder, publisher of the Bay St. Louis newspaper, The Sea Coast Echo, predicts the county lost a big chunk of its 40,000 population, but they’re starting to come back.

Heading east, things are better. The first two blocks of Gulfport were pretty much destroyed, but past that things are buzzing with activity. Stores are open. Traffic is heavy. Life is normal. There’s just a lot of fixing up to do.

The stockholders of Imperial Palace must be happy. Rumor has it the three open casinos are doing 65 percent of the business that 12 casinos were doing before the storm. Slot machines were crammed into every nook and cranny of the hotel. The place was packed.

I still can’t get used to seeing grandmas in wheel chairs with oxygen canisters smoking cigarettes, drinking scotch, pouring quarters down slot machines as the neon light reflects off their mesmerized pupils.

But my biggest complaint about casinos is the horrible stench of stale tobacco. It is overpowering. I could smell it in the parking lot before I even walked into the building.

Governor Haley Barbour addressed the press convention. As usual, he was articulate and knowledgeable, speaking without notes about a vast array of complex issues with complete command of hundreds of facts and figures. Even my more left-wing journalist friends admit to his competence. His report on the state economy was rosy but he was most optimistic about the coast.

“More money is going to be made here in the next five years than anyone can image,” Barbour said.

Barbour defended the feds, saying “they did more right than wrong.” He praised Mississippi Power and Entergy for getting electricity back in two weeks. It took two months to restore power after Camille. He also praised the Sun-Herald newspaper. “The Sun-Herald became the center of the community’s spirit. It’s a spectacular example of what you guys can do.”

Just about everybody agrees the current problem is the workforce. “We need houses for the people who will build the houses,” as Barbour put it. Modest 1500-square-foot houses in Gulfport are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

After the convention I stopped by to visit with my Aunt Francy (Mary Frances Martin). My first cousin once removed, Caroline Martin, was staying with Aunt Francy and had just caught a bunch of Sheepshead in the back bay. Since Katrina, you can catch them in the bays.

Aunt Francy is an excellent cook. She fried them lightly in flour. I doused the filets with hot sauce and worcestershire sauce and chowed down.

Aunt Francy recalled how after Camille they all wondered what they talked about before Camille. Now nobody ever talks about Camille.

“It’s just awful. It really is,” she said. “But I’m not depressed because I have no control over it. We just do the best we can.”

My cousin Celia Barrett is Gulfport’s head librarian. The library is still closed, but some big federal money is expected soon. Her husband Scotty fixes up and rents properties. “He’s exhausted,” she said. I guess his business will be booming for quite some time.

Young Caroline is upbeat and excited about the coming boom, although she is still mystified by the weird stuff washing up on the beach. This week it was jock straps and unopened cans of bacon bits. She was studying for her real estate test in Jackson the next day and was delighted to hitch a ride in my Cessna.

On the way to the airport, we stopped at her friends’ house on Second Street. Catherine and Morgan Riemann and neighbor Kim Herrington were chatting around the breakfast table.

Devastation was out every window. Yesterday the next door neighbor’s house was “demo-ed” (Katrina slang for demolished) but they were upbeat and chatty. Their house had already been redone and she counted all the neighbors who will rebuild.

The Gulf Coast has families, friends, roots and spirit that even Katrina couldn’t dent.