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Miss. Gulf Coast marks milestone in Katrina recovery with bridge opening

Two cities that bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina’s destructive fury were reunited by a new bridge that opened to traffic Thursday, replacing the one demolished by the storm.

A steady stream of cars crossed the 2-mile span over the Bay of St. Louis, which has separated Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian since Katrina hit more than 20 months ago.

Roughly 19,000 cars a day crossed the U.S. 90 bridge before the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane washed it away, forcing many motorists to endure long commutes around the bay.

Two lanes of the new $267 million bridge linking Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian opened Thursday. Two other lanes — and a sidewalk for pedestrians and bicyclists — are scheduled to open in November.

Officials tied two ribbons — symbols of the renewed link between the two cities — at the center of the bridge and dropped a wreath into the water in memory of Katrina’s victims.

Gov. Haley Barbour, speaking at the foot of the bridge, said the bridge’s reopening is one of the most important milestones since the storm for south Mississippi. He cautioned that “a lot remains to be done” with the recovery.

“I want you to know it’s never fast enough to suit me,” Barbour said.

Elise Hilbert, 70, was watching preparations for the ceremony from her house located about 300 yards from the Bay St. Louis side of the bridge. Hilbert’s home took in four to five feet of water from Katrina and she moved back into the house in February.

Hilbert said she had felt stranded since the bridge’s closing turned a three minute drive into a 30-minute detour.

“This is going to do wonderful things for our community,” she said. “Things are looking every good over here.”

Harold “Buz” Olsen, chief administrative officer for Bay St. Louis, said it gave him “tingles” when a project engineer drove him over the bridge last Friday.

“I never imagined it would happen this quickly,” Olsen said. “It fooled everybody.”

Workers built the new bridge next to the remnants of the old one, which crumbled under the force of Katrina’s monster storm surge.

“It basically lifted it up like it was a raft,” said Harry Lee James, chief engineer for the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

The old bridge, built in the early 1950s, was flat and stood about 20 feet above the bay. The new bridge is about twice as wide and is higher above the water — 30 feet at its lowest point and 85 feet at its highest point.

Demolition of the old bridge started in March 2006 and was completed in September 2006. The first piling for the new bridge was driven in June 2006. The last concrete deck was poured on May 1.

“It’s certainly a heartwarming feeling to know that we have a small part in the recovery down here,” James said.

J. Richard Capka, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, said the project’s rapid completion is a “feat to be applauded.”

“It is pretty remarkable, considering what had to be done,” he said.

Before the bridge’s opening, a federally funded ferry service was shuttling dozens of cars a day across the bay.

For residents of Bay St. Louis, a town of roughly 8,200 before Katrina, the bridge was the major route to the larger metropolitan areas of Gulfport and Biloxi to the east.

Farther east on U.S. 90, Katrina also demolished a bridge connecting Biloxi with Ocean Springs. Two lanes of that bridge are scheduled to open in November.

Federal Gulf Coast hurricane recovery coordinator Donald Powell said the federal government paid for the entire cost of the project.

“I’ve told the president on many occasions: The best thing we can do with the people in Mississippi is to listen to them, understand their needs, give them the money and to get the hell out of there,” Powell said.