When Hurricane Katrina roared ashore in 2005, it made its mark on Mississippi's gulf coast. In Gulfport and Biloxi, the storm destroyed casinos, museums, homes and other structures; the nearby town of Bay St. Louis suffered incredible damage. But in the years since, the towns along the Mississippi coastline have rebuilt and renewed themselves, making the most of the story and welcoming visitors to learn about it.
I toured Bay St. Louis and parts of Biloxi today, seeing both evidence of the storm and the rebuilding that has taken place since then. We began in Bay St. Louis, the town that was hit the hardest. Though much of town has been rebuilt, several historic structures further inland survived. These include the Depot, a historic train station that now serves as a visitors center, and St. Rose de Lima Church. Another survivor is 100 Men DBA Hall, a historic music venue that was part of the "Chitlin Circuit" of blues joints throughout Mississippi in the early 20th century. Today the building is preserved as a historic site that groups can visit to learn about the rich African American cultural history of the area.
Downtown, Bay St. Louis has been almost completely rebuilt. Visitors will find numerous art galleries, craft shops and antique stores, which make an afternoon downtown a colorful event. The area also has a number of restaurants that serve seafood fresh from the Gulf, as well as other Southern specialties.
In Biloxi, several landmarks along the coast symbolize the city's resilience and recovery. During the storm, a surge of saltwater flooded inland areas, and many of the area's live oak trees died as a result of soaking in saltwater for eight hours or more. Rather than uproot these trees, locals fired up their chainsaws and carved them into beautiful outdoor sculptures, which both decorate the area and serve to memorialize the events of 2005.
Another symolic structure is the 1848 lighthouse that stands outside of Biloxi's visitors center. This white metal lighthouse has been an icon of the city for years, and locals and visitors alike were thrilled to see that the lighthouse survived the storm. Today, groups can take a tour of the small lighthouse, clmibing the circular stairway to the top for a look at the historic lamp and magnification lens, as well as a great view of Biloxi and the coastline.
Groups should also make time to visit Biloxi's Hurricane Katrina Memorial. Constructed by the crew of TV's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," this monument combines a colletion of items found scattered around town after the storm with a stately monument honoring those who lost their lives in the hurricane. The monument also has live oak that was masterfully carved and painted to create a tribute sculpture.
A tour of the Katrina sites in the area gives visitors an understanding of the storm and the damage it created in the community. But more moving than that lesson in history is the beauty of the communities that have reemerged, stronger and prouder than ever.
100 Men DBA Hall is part of Mississippi's Blues Trail
Clay Creations is one of sevral art galleries in Bay St. Louis
A colorful gift shop in downtown Bay St. Louis
Biloxi's 1848 lighthouse
Found objects on display at Biloxi's Hurricane Katrina Memorial