When I made plans to stop in Bay St. Louis, MS on my recent trip along the Gulf Coast, all I’d heard about it was that it was a “cool small town” and “the best place to stop on Mississippi’s coast.”
What’s important here is not what I heard – it’s what I didn’t hear. Until I visited Bay St. Louis, I didn’t know it had been the town where the eye of violent Hurricane Katrina made its final landfall in 2005. That is a powerful testimony to this town’s success in rebuilding and renewing itself.
Bay St. Louis is a town of about 10,000 people located along that little stretch of gulf coastline that Mississippi claims for itself. Only an hour from New Orleans, Bay St. Louis shares a lot of that bigger city’s feel – warm, friendly, and artistic, with plenty of that laid-back, happy-go-lucky vibe. I was there on a Thursday night, and the waterfront bar I chose was filled with jovial characters washing down fish tacos with big pineapple margaritas. The sidewalk seating at the café across the street was filled up, and the deli selling po’boys had a crowd hanging around outside the door. The scene was in full swing, and this section of town felt like a thriving shore destination.
You’d never know that ten years ago, that bar, along with the every other building on Beach Boulevard, was completely underwater.
Katrina touched down in Bay St. Louis during a high tide on August 29, 2005. While everyone knows about the destruction this historic hurricane wrought upon nearby New Orleans, New Orleans was not at the eye of the storm – Bay St. Louis was. Half of the homes in this coastal resort town were destroyed by the combination of a storm tide 30 feet deep and winds of up to 150 mph. The beachfront was devastated, as was the fishing industry it accessed. The bridge that connected Bay St. Louis with the rest of the eastern gulf coast was completely obliterated. Fortunately most of the population had been evacuated before the storm reached them; however, land and property losses were immense. Many residents as well as the city itself are still dealing with insurance settlements related to storm damage, and they will likely be doing so for some time to come.
Ten years later, the town looks – to an outsider, anyway – completely rebuilt. There’s a new bridge across the bay (a $260 million project), a new community center and church along the waterfront road, and an impressive small boat harbor. Renovated historic buildings abound, and there are numerous brightly colored houses with grand verandahs and well-kept gardens. There seems to be an art gallery on every corner, and the metal lampposts with “Bay St. Louis” forged into them remind you that you are in a town with an identity – one that is striving to be remembered.
I biked for several miles along a brand new boardwalk and shoreline between Bay St. Louis and Waveland, the next town down the coast. This stretch of beach is majestic – wide, long, clean, and raked nightly by public employees. The running and biking path lies between the beach and the boulevard and affords its users a great view of the local houses with gulf views. Most of these houses are now up on twenty-foot stilts – the new post-Katrina building code required for this location – a powerful reminder that neither the beach nor the boardwalk were around ten years ago.
As I was riding by these houses, I wondered if I would go back to a town that had been completely flooded, put my house up on stilts, plant some grass and flowers, take a deep breath and start again. I’m not sure that I would. One-third of Bay St. Louis’ population left after Katrina and never came back. But two-thirds of them did not leave, and a host of new residents have brought population levels (and the related tax base) back up to about where it was pre-hurricane.
Locals claim that the Katrina brought their community closer together, in that way that tragedies often do. The Mockingbird Café opened shortly after the storm and served as a gathering place for displaced residents and volunteers. It now hosts yoga, live music, group runs, and community talks as well as serving three meals a day in the craftsman-style bungalow it inhabits. Another restaurant in town serves as an on-the-job-training center for disadvantaged youth. There are posters for an upcoming music festival, the “Bay Harbor Fest,” for which Gregg Allman is the opening act. And then there’s the bar I was sitting in, eating fish tacos with everyone else in town. That building is spitting distance from the water when the weather is calm. Someone had to invest the money to rebuild it. That’s bold. Or stupid…as we all know, there’s a fine line between the two.
Whether or not you believe rebuilding in Bay St. Louis – or New Orleans and Biloxi for that matter – is wise or not, you have to admire the spirit of those who choose to do so. Resiliency is one of the human species’ most impressive traits, and it abounds in Bay St. Louis. That must be what I felt while walking among those brightly colored houses – hope.
This is a documentary made by high school students in Ohio about Bay High School in Bay St. Louis and the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the students and the community. It’s a great depiction of resilience in action.