Mississippi Gulf Coast

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Gulf Islands National Seashore, MS

Between the Alabama/Mississippi state line and Biloxi, I didn’t find many reasons to stop the car.  I avoided the interstate and stayed on US 90 the entire time, but there wasn’t much to see.  Any views of open water were mostly hidden from the road as I passed through Pascagoula (which probably has a more scenic area, but US 90 wasn’t terribly thrilling).  I did, however, detour at Ocean Springs, Mississippi, to check out Gulf Islands National Seashore.

The road through the park appears to be traveling through a dense forest, but the truth is, there are subdivisions just out of sight of the road.  The park road heads south for about a mile, then eventually reaches the main attraction: a view of the Gulf.

Gulf Islands National Seashore would be great if you needed a picnic spot, or were planning an afternoon of fishing.  But for me, it didn’t offer much.  There’s a pier here…

… and some views of the marshland at the edge of the water, but that’s about it.

From the pier, you can see the casinos of Biloxi in the distance.  Okay, you can’t really see them in this picture, because they’re still a few miles away.  But trust me, they’re there.

Biloxi

As you drive through Biloxi, you’ll experience the brief feeling that you’ve somehow wandered into Las Vegas.  High-rise casino hotels sprout up on the Gulf side of the road, along with huge video signs just like you’d find on the strip.  I didn’t stop to gain a close-up appreciation for all this development, and as you can see, I shot these pictures out of the car window as I drove by the Beau Rivage, one of the largest casino complexes in Biloxi.

As you drive through this area, you begin to see the subtle signs that a not-so-subtle storm blew through here a few years ago.  Much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.  Even though the eye of the storm targeted New Orleans, the flooding from the storm’s surge spread out for many miles, and washed away a lot of homes and businesses.

The casinos have recovered nicely, but the damage from the 2005 storm season is obvious elsewhere.  In Biloxi, and further west, you’ll notice old oak trees that seem to be missing many of their limbs, plots of land that are inexplicably empty, and concrete stilts and foundations with nothing on top of them.  Signs still advertise slab removal services.  Even so, it’s tough to realize what it must have been like along US 90 when Katrina made landfall (and what it will be like once again, whenever the next storm hits).

I thought Biloxi’s lighthouse might be interesting, but it wasn’t.  The lighthouse sits in the median of US 90, making it virtually inaccessible.  And even if you could reach it, there wouldn’t be much of a point, since it’s fenced off and locked shut.

Headed west, US 90 stays near the water, with numerous places to access a long and undeveloped beach on the south side of the road.

Gulfport

As you head further west, the hurricane damage becomes more apparent.  In fact, you can’t help but notice an out-of-place steeple and bell tower sitting on the ground near downtown Gulfport, Mississippi.  The First Presbyterian Church of Gulfport was heavily damaged by Katrina’s storm surge (as was almost every other building in town).  Remarkably, the steeple survived, and the church vows to use it when it rebuilds.

You can take a look at before and after pictures of the First Presbyterian Church of Gulfport on the church’s website.  As of 2009, the church has made final plans to build a new facility, farther from the water.

The steeple sits next to the Mississippi Sound Historical Museum, which is now boarded up and closed, thanks to Hurricane Katrina.  The museum is located in a former Carnegie library, and had opened just a few months before Katrina hit.

The old Markham Hotel fared pretty well during Katrina, compared to what other businesses suffered. Most of the damage seems to be near the roof, on the side.  Since the storm, the building has sat vacant, and no one can seem to decide what to do with it, or find the money to make it happen.

Throughout the rest of town, storm damage is still obvious.  Here, it looks as if Katrina, or the renovations that followed, uncovered some of the building’s original signage.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s the time-lapse, dash-cam video of my drive from Biloxi to Gulfport:

Bay St. Louis

All things considered, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi is looking pretty good these days.  Just the fact that it still exists in any form whatsoever is quite remarkable.  Hurricane Katrina, a storm that most people associate with New Orleans, was equally devastating to this part of the Mississippi coast.  The small towns of Bay St. Louis and nearby Waveland were almost entirely wiped off the map by a storm surge that was larger than anyone expected.  Homes and businesses weren’t just damaged, they simply disappeared.  Nothing escaped some sort of devastation.

But like I said, you’d barely know it now — at least, someone like me, who hadn’t seen the pre-Katrina version of the town, wouldn’t know it.  I don’t know where all the homes used to be.  I couldn’t tell you what’s missing.

I parked at the corner of Main and Second Street.  Main Street United Methodist Church of Bay St. Louis stands on one of the corners.  It’s one of the few buildings that, somehow, escaped the worst of Katrina.  The church lost its steeple, but the rest survived.  It served as a relief center in the months that followed.

There are a few other businesses on the corners, and some of them were even open during my Sunday afternoon visit.  I went in Magnolia Antiques (directly across from the church) and looked around for a while.  On my way out, I picked up a brochure on the town, that proudly proclaims, “Old Town Bay St. Louis, We’re Back In Business!”.  It lists dozens of restaurants and shops that have successfully made the seemingly impossible comeback.

Several feet of water swept into the Hancock County Court House, just a block away from the church.  Its windows and doors were damaged by wind and debris, but after extensive rehab, it’s as good as new.

The Hancock County Courthouse cost just $30,000 when it was built in 1903.  The post-Katrina renovation cost $4.8 Million.  The storm actually helped the county find the funding to restore the old courthouse to its original glory (and add on a 10,000 square foot addition).

From downtown, it’s only a couple of blocks to Bay St. Louis’ waterfront.  I didn’t stop to take a picture, but you can see it on the dash-cam time-lapse video of the area, posted below.  Plans are in the works to build a pier and harbor at the waterfront, in between the town’s railroad bridge, and the US-90 bridge.  As of 2009, only a few remnants of the old pier still stand.

The US 90 bridge over the mouth of St. Louis Bay was heavily damaged during Katrina.  The entire road deck was pushed off the pilings.  The railroad tracks were also washed out and mangled by the flood waters.  (During Hurricane Camille, the storm surge didn’t go past the train tracks–during Katrina, the surge flooded beyond US 90.)  To appreciate the damage in Bay St. Louis, and the amazing recovery, check out these pictures.

I drove around a little more before returning to US 90, then Interstate 10.  It was time to head on into New Orleans.

Mississippi Welcome Center – Stennis Space Center

I was hoping to find an internet hot spot to book a motel room in New Orleans, before heading into town, so I stopped at the Mississippi Welcome Center (even though I was getting ready to leave Mississippi at the time).  I booked the room, but I also discovered this lunar lander vehicle from the Apollo program on display at the rest area.  The welcome center doubles as a check-in point for the Stennis Space Center.  Stennis served as a test facility, and was established in 1963 to test-fire the rockets that carried men to the moon.  From the rest area, you can hop on a bus and take a tour of the nearby Stennis Space Center.

The StenniSphere, the official visitor center of the Stennis Space Center, is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with the last bus departing the rest area at 2 p.m.  Thanks to that limited schedule, I had to pass on a side trip to the facility.

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