Mississippi Gulf Coast—Life Stirs Amid Ruins

By Kathie Farnell
Photos by Jack Purser Jr.

Five months after Hurricane Katrina drowned Biloxi, Mississippi beneath a 28-foot storm surge, the Gulf Coast boomtown is a long way from reviving. Along the beachfront, the destruction is so complete that it is impossible to locate any landmarks. The row of historic mansions which lined Highway 90 are either missing or reduced to rubble.

Biloxi’s casinos took the brunt of the storm. The Beau Rivage is still standing, as is the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, though neither will reopen before summer 2006. The Treasure Island Casino, built in the shape of a huge ship, now resembles a huge shipwreck.

Several casinos located back of the beach have reopened, including the Isle of Capri and the Imperial Palace.

In the waterfront area, the only bright spot is Mary Mahoney’s Old French House, a restaurant which occupies a circa-1737 house. Mary Mahoney’s, partially sheltered by the Beau Rivage, sustained more than five feet of water from Hurricane Katrina, but reopened in early December, 2005, and today is the only functioning restaurant in the waterfront area.

Mary Mahoney’s is built around a courtyard, home of an enormous live oak tree called The Patriarch, which sports a sign claiming it is 2000 years old. Despite all the surrounding destruction, The Patriarch looks good for another 2000; apparently the encroaching saltwater didn’t damage the big tree’s roots, and the wind didn’t manage to do more than rip off a few small limbs. Inside, the restaurant, which opened in 1964, features fresh Gulf seafood in a genteel setting including antique furniture, fireplaces, and paintings. An enclosed porch which once offered a scenic view of the shady park across the way now looks out over a construction zone where workmen remove piles of rubble.

The restaurant’s specialties are intact—Half Lobster Georgio, stuffed with diced lobster and shrimp, Stuffed Snapper, which features shrimp and crabmeat au gratin, and Veal Antonio, pan-fried veal topped with crabmeat. The homemade gumbo and bread pudding still draw crowds. On the wall, a small sign points to the high-water mark from Katrina, level with the fireplace mantel.

The state of Mississippi is considering an ambitious rebuilding plan which would model small coastal towns in the “new Urbanism” style made popular by Seaside, Florida. In the meantime, and for the foreseeable future, Mary Mahoney’s remains a lone beacon of hope.

For more information on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, check the website at www.biloxi.ms.us

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