We awoke in Davis Bayou Campground (click here to read our review) to another sunny day. A squirrel scampered up the trunk of the big pine tree outside the window, then settled in the nook of a twisted, woody vine and groomed his fluffy tail. What a pleasant start to our lazy Sunday.
Since we arrived on Wednesday, each day has included exploration of the small, historic, towns along Highway 90, the beach front road along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi from Waveland and Bay St. Louis on the west end to Ocean Springs on the east (where we are staying). The meticulously maintained, litter-free, sparkling white man-made beaches are glorious, and the history of this area is fascinating… and over it all hangs the story of the recent devastation by Katrina in 2005.
Though New Orleans garnered the biggest media coverage after Katrina, Waveland and adjoining Bay St. Louis were ground zero when Katrina made landfall. The two towns were almost completely destroyed, homes, churches, and commercial buildings swept right off of their foundations and leveled. The 2-mile bridge between Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian, the next small town to the east, was destroyed, as was most of Pass Christian.
On Saturday, we drove the entire 35 miles stretch, from Ocean Springs to Waveland. We crossed two huge, 2 mile long bridges (both new replacements for those destroyed by Katrina), and passed mile after mile of beachfront property stripped clean of the lovely antebellum homes that fell victim to the hurricane.
Above: a typical scene of driveways to nowhere, homes swept away by Katrina.
Below: the new Biloxi Bridge (2 miles long), built since Katrina destroyed the old one.
Biloxi is the largest city along this stretch of coastline, and the devastation here is difficult to comprehend. Gambling is the main business in Biloxi, and several major hotel/casinos were located here. Although the casinos began rebuilding immediately after Katrina and have long been back in business, ruins of casino parking structures still exist, huge rusty hulks awaiting removal or rebuilding. Along miles and miles of beachfront, driveways go to empty lots, to broken brick or wooden pillars, or to front stairways that are all that survived the destruction of the home.
On trips through the Biloxi casino row earlier this week, we had noticed an area of “ruins” that interested us both, on the “water side” of Highway 90. As we headed back to the east from Bay St. Louis yesterday, we decided to pull into the area, a huge bumpy mix of concrete, broken asphalt roads, and sand, enclosing a large rectangle of sea water lined on one end with gigantic metal structures. What was it?
Many other cars and visitors were already out on this odd spot, some walking, some taking photos, some fishing. The first two people we asked were, like us, curious out-of-towners who didn’t know diddley. The third? We hit the jackpot.
Our fisherman “docent” was a local who lived in Biloxi when Katrina hit. He was genial and full of stories, willing and able to answer every question we had and full of fascinating anecdotes. This is what we learned about the ruins on which we stood (photos above), the site of the now non-existent President Casino and Broadwater Marina.
Under Mississippi law pre-Katrina, casinos had to be located “offshore”, so each casino was built on a giant floating barge. In most cases, they were moored adjacent to a resort hotel. In the case of the President resort, the hotel (and a golf course) was on beachfront property. Across the beach from the hotel, huge concrete piers enclosed a large marina. The President casino floated on its barge at the far end of the marina (photo below, left).
As Katrina pushed the storm surge onto land, the casino barges floated up off of their moorings and traveled inland on the water, crushing homes and businesses as they landed. The President casino landed on top of a Quality Inn, according to our informant. The hotel and golf course were also destroyed. All that is left now are the concrete piers that surrounded the marina and the large flat area what provided parking for the casino.
The President Casino Broadwater Resort and Marina pre-Katrina
The casino barge, torn from it's moorings, ended up 1/2 miles west, across Hwy 90.
His stories and the sights we saw as we drove along Hwy 90 were so fascinating and poignant that I spent a couple hours poring over photos and accounts of the damage done to these interesting old towns once I was back in front of the computer. Though the occasional news story reminds us from time to time that New Orleans didn’t suffer the brunt of Katrina’s damage, it was never “real” for me – I couldn’t picture the Mississippi gulf coast, and had no context for understanding. Yesterday opened my eyes, and I am amazed by the progress these small towns have made in their recovery. Nonetheless, they will NEVER recover completely; too many beautiful and historic buildings were totally lost or damaged beyond repair.
We’ve had a GREAT time here in Ocean Springs, and I hope we’ll be back. If any of you are in the market for beach front property in a fascinating area, come on down!