On my last night on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I stood awestruck on an empty beach stretching for miles. Only an occasional bicyclist or jogger happened by, until a man jumped off his motorcycle and strode toward me. While we watched a fiery sun sink below the horizon, he told me he was driving to Mexico on his motorcycle and stopped to watch the sunset. “I don’t even know what this town is called,” he said looking puzzled. “Biloxi,” I answered. He smiled, shook his head at the wonder, and then headed back to his motorcycle.
Apparently this is a common occurrence. The gold and magenta sky of the Gulf Coast sunset stops people in their tracks—even the locals. It’s a mandatory postponement of anything you’re doing. Prepare to stand transfixed; holding your breath in amazement that anything so ordinary could be so magnificent.
While most people associate Hurricane Katrina with the devastation in New Orleans, the Mississippi Gulf Coast succumbed to a direct hit. As the hurricane roared up the mouth of the Mississippi River, Katrina unleashed her most forceful winds–up to 175 miles per hour. In Biloxi, the storm surge rose 27 feet where it lingered there for eight full hours, flooding and uprooting everything within 12 miles inland. Ninety percent of the structures along the beachfront were leveled.
Because high insurance rates made it difficult to rebuild near the beaches, much of the shorefront remains empty. Instead you’ll find miles of pristine, undisturbed beaches and big sky. A road runs north, past a few landmarks like Beauvior–Jefferson Davis’ antebellum home, a lighthouse, and an occasional oceanfront restaurant. North of Biloxi, the tiny village of Pass Christian, population 4,600, continues to rebuild—transforming FEMA cottages into shops and restaurants. Uprooted Biloxi residents build their homes deeper inland.
Though they calmly share death-defying tales of destruction, most Mississippians who stayed after Hurricane Katrina have almost fully recovered; their determination and elegant dignity not undone by the direct hit of the Category 5 storm ten years ago. New buildings are suspended on stilts. The low cost of living and temperate climate have attracted a number of newcomers—especially retirees, artists and entrepreneurs—to the region. The few historic homes that stood up to gale force winds were transformed into galleries and charming inns. Handmade pottery is a particular specialty of resident crafters, with colors and textures inspired by the natural environment and remnants of the storm. One shopkeeper exclaimed over my Maryland Drivers License: “Hey welcome! I’m from Northern Virginia.” She explained that she moved to Mississippi nine years ago after joining the cleanup effort on the Gulf Coast. “I fell in love with the place and lived here ever since.”
Potters, Baba Scaturro and Betty Embry, fled their beachfront homes as Katrina approached. After the hurricane, they returned to Biloxi to find nothing left. Scaturro says, “I couldn’t even find my street much less my house. All our landmarks were gone.” These spirited sisters, along with other artists, opened the Gallery 782 in a one of the few houses that survived devastation. A block from the Beau Rivage and Hard Rock casinos, the gallery is filled with pottery and jewelry bursting with whimsy and detail.
Most Mississippians are grateful for the response and support they received from FEMA, the federal emergency management administration. They tell me everyday for weeks, government planes dropped necessities, including water, food, mosquito netting, flashlights and tents onto Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Volunteers poured in with clothes, bedding and toiletries, helping the locals dig through muck for lost treasures. For more than a month, communities were without electricity, living in the dark, using camping supplies to survive.
Just when tourists were trickling back to Mississippi Gulf Coast towns, residents commenced to grieve again. The BP oil spill of 2010 sent black tar onto beaches and barrier islands that once housed dolphins, turtles, coral and migrating birds. Once more volunteers arrived to clean up the mess. Five years after the massive spill, the cleanup process has ended, with infrequent sightings of oily debris. The seafood industry was shut down until the catch was deemed safe for human consumption. Miraculously, the shutdown led to rejuvenation and replenishment of the oyster beds and shrimp population.
Today, I marvel over the diverse and unforgettable seafood from this region. Similar to New Orleans Cajun cooking, the Gulf Coast prepares spicy gumbos with fresh catch, including crab, alligator and shrimp. Meals often end with luscious bread puddings flavored by pumpkin, dark molasses and rum. After a particularly satisfying lunch, I say to my tablemate, “I could eat this everyday.” She looks at me and says, “If you don’t mind wearing a few sizes larger.”
Indeed the food is at times heavy, creamy, and often fried. But mostly, these freshly shucked oysters and tubular okra are simply sublime. You will eat well and spend less in Biloxi. After dining at one of Biloxi’s fine restaurants, walk back to the beach. As the sun sets, you can’t help but gasp at the swirl of colors above miles of perfect white sand.
Places to Stay: Accommodations along the Mississippi Gulf Coast range from Southern style plantation bed and breakfast inns to huge, boisterous casino resorts. Here are my two favorites:
Oak Crest Mansion Inn
Best Places to Hear Live Music:
IP Casino Resort and Spa
Sunset Bar in Island View Casino Resort
Shaggy’s Beach Bar
Government Street Grocery