Gulf Coast marks milestone in Katrina recovery with opening of bridge to Mississippi’s casinos

Published 6:22 pm Friday, November 2, 2007

Two years ago, cities on the opposite sides of Biloxi Bay clashed over blueprints for a wider, taller bridge to replace a highway span demolished by Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge.

Those divisions were an afterthought for the thousands of Gulf Coast residents celebrating the partial opening of the six-lane bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs. The new 1.6-mile bridge, which opened to the public early evening Thursday, restores the last broken link in coastal U.S. 90, a landmark in the region’s recovery from the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane.

“Water under the bridge,” Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway said of his disagreement with his Ocean Springs counterpart, Connie Moran.

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Two of the bridge’s six lanes opened following a daylong celebration at both ends of the $338 million structure. The span reconnects the casino resorts of Biloxi with the quaint shops and tree-lined streets of Ocean Springs, on the eastern side of the bay.

In Katrina’s early aftermath, the size of the new bridge was a sore spot for some in Ocean Springs. Moran had pressed the state to limit the bridge to four lanes, the same number as on the drawbridge that Katrina reduced to mounds of concrete and pilings.

Moran, an advocate of the “New Urbanism” architectural movement’s emphasis on creating compact, walkable cities, said she feared that a bigger, wider bridge would turn her city’s center into an expressway.

However, Moran said she is pleased by some of the features of the new bridge, including its bike path, “see-through” railings and decorative lights.

“We need to put politics and personality behind us, come together and celebrate reconnecting the coast,” she said. “This is the most significant milestone in the post-Katrina recovery period.”

In Biloxi, many city leaders and business owners welcome a larger bridge to accommodate more tourists, especially for a casino industry that already is raking in record revenues after Katrina.

The Isle of Capri, at the foot of the washed-out bridge, was the second Gulf Coast casino back in operation when it reopened in December 2005. Today, 11 casinos are operating on Mississippi’s coast, only one fewer than before Katrina hit.

Isle of Capri spokesman Rich Westfall said the casino, which “went from the best location to the hardest location to get to” after Katrina, hopes the bridge traffic will increase its business. The bridge is the main access to the strip of coastal casinos from the east.

All six lanes of the new bridge, and a path for pedestrians and bicyclists, are to be open by April. Ninety-five feet above water at its highest point, the span is designed to weather the elements better than the old drawbridge.

Around 35,000 cars a day crossed the four-lane bridge before Katrina.

“It’s going to restore our sense of community,” said Vincent Creel, a spokesman for the city of Biloxi. “The beauty of this bridge is that it’s built for the future. It’s built for increased traffic. It’s built for the generations to come.”

Farther west on U.S. 90, Katrina also destroyed a two-mile bridge over the Bay of St. Louis. A new bridge between the cities of Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian partially opened in May.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Donald Powell, federal coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding, joined other officials at a ceremony to mark the bridge’s opening.

“We all work together,” Barbour said. “This wasn’t about party; it was about progress. It wasn’t about politics, it was about performance.”

At the center of the bridge, Moran and Holloway joined in dropping a wreath into the water in memory of Katrina’s victims and three workers who died in construction accidents while rebuilding the bridge over the Bay of St. Louis.

Several hours before the ceremony, Biloxi residents Gary Ware, 59, and his wife, Ginger, 50, sat in folding chairs set up on the Biloxi side of the bridge and listened to a children’s choir perform the national anthem.

“It’s nice to have us all connected again. It’s progress,” said Ginger Ware, a Biloxi resident.

“We still have a long way to go, though,” her husband added. “I’m happy that the casinos are back and most of the businesses are back, but I think it will be 20 years before the coast fully recovers.”