Biloxi, Mississippi: Rebuilt and Reborn

A serene scene at Biloxi beach - Photo by Melissa Parker
A serene scene at Biloxi beach - Photo by Melissa Parker

Biloxi, MS – Long before French explorer Pierre LeMoyne d’Iberville discovered Biloxi in 1699, the Native Americans lived there. A tribe called Biloxi (meaning “first people”) met the explorer who was instructed by the King of France to claim the coastal region. Since its discovery, eight flags have flown over the city including the French, English, Spanish, West Florida Republic, Mississippi Magnolia, Confederate State, Mississippi State, and that of the United States.

Admitted into the union in 1817, Biloxi was a part of the Mississippi Territory at that time. The city had two clear advantages; one being its close proximity to New Orleans and the other being easy access via water.

The beachfront of Biloxi lies directly on the Mississippi Sound, an arm of the Gulf of Mexico. Picturesque is one word to describe the white sandy shoreline along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. For twenty-six miles, many vehicle pullovers along Highway 90 allow visitors a chance to stop for beach access, photo opportunities, or just to stick a toe into the water.

A hermit crab peers out from its shell - Photo by Melissa Parker
A hermit crab peers out from its shell - Photo by Melissa Parker

Hermit crabs can often be seen on the sand and in the marshes, usually spotted in colonies of ten or more because they love to socialize and keep each other company. Small Least Terns who nest and breed along the coast are endangered and people are restricted from those areas, but are encouraged to stop and take photos.

The Biloxi lighthouse (built in 1848) is simple to find if you are traveling in either lane of U. S. 90 along the longest man-made beach in the United States (from Biloxi to Pass Christian). Located about six miles west of the entrance to Biloxi harbor, it is the only lighthouse in the world that is currently located in the median strip of a busy highway. A postage stamp featuring the Biloxi lighthouse will be unveiled at a ceremony on July 23, 2009.

“The lighthouse is our most treasured landmark and is undergoing a facelift at this time, with a new coat of paint,” said Jasse Perniciaro, Tourism Information Specialist for the Gulf Coast. “It will be open for tours again in a couple of months after the interior gets redone also,” Perniciaro continued.

The 48-foot conical tower was made of cast iron and it withstood Katrina, but the lighthouse sustained significant damage to its interior brick lining after the fierce storm. An American flag was hung on it for months after Katrina’s devastation. This was just one example of the civic pride the citizens of Biloxi have in their “never say die” community.

Located also on Highway 90 (Beach Boulevard) is another popular Biloxi attraction. Beauvoir, the retirement home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, was severely damaged by wind and water during Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005. An estimated 60 to 70 percent of Beauvoir’s collections were lost including Davis’s two carriages and Mexican War saddle.

“A lot of the original furniture was saved, “ Perniciaro said. “The house has been restored to probably 99% of as much of the original home as possible and tours are still being given. They are rebuilding the library, but there is still a temporary shelter on the grounds for the gift shop,” she added.

Biloxi was one of the communities hardest hit when Hurricane Katrina came ashore on August 29, 2005. The Biloxi Ocean Springs bridge washed away; several “floating” casinos were thrown inland; about 90% of the buildings along the coast in Biloxi and neighboring Gulfport were destroyed; there were 53 confirmed fatalities in Biloxi resulting from the devastation.

Biloxi’s Katrina sculpture project began in January 2007. The Mississippi “chainsaw artist” Dayton Scoggins, was asked by the mayor and other officials to sculpt marine-related figures from the dozens of standing dead trees in the median of Beach Boulevard. The first one was erected about a half block from the lighthouse. Scoggins carved Mississippi’s native animals and marine life into the tree stumps bringing them to life. They are located in the medians and in the parks in Biloxi, Gulfport, and Long Beach.

It has been a tedious, but deliberate operation on the road to complete recovery from the Category 4 hurricane. Many homes and businesses still have not been rebuilt. The Biloxi Ocean Springs Bridge, which is the key artery for the area’s tourism and business traffic, fully reopened in April of 2008 and that has aided greatly in the restoration process.

During the aftermath of Katrina, tourists came out of a loyal concern for the town and to support the community. They also came to gamble. Biloxi is known for its 24-hour gambling, concert entertainment shows, and casino resort hotels. You’ll find eight first-class casino resorts there; Beau Rivage, Boomtown, Grand Biloxi Casino, Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, IP Casino Resort Spa, Isle of Capri Biloxi Casino, Palace Casino Resort, and Treasure Bay.

Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Biloxi - Photo by Melissa Parker
Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Biloxi - Photo by Melissa Parker

The Beau Rivage was rebuilt and re-opened in 2006, a year after Katrina. This destination resort was once again recognized as one of the top hotels in the world by the leading travel magazine, Travel+Leisure. It has been described as a “waterfront resort that’s like Vegas on the Gulf Coast.” The Grand Biloxi Hotel and Spa has replaced the former Grand Casino Biloxi which was destroyed by the 2005 hurricane.

Most of the casinos offer fine dining with a wide assortment of buffets. But, if you’re looking for restaurants outside of the casinos and have a craving for Vietnamese cuisine, visit the Kim Long Restaurant on Division Street. The Old Biloxi Schooner on Howard Avenue has a great local feel; fried shrimp, oyster poboys, and stuffed crab are served. If a touch of Greek is your thing, try Mr. Greek on Pass Road in Biloxi – they specializes in homemade pitas and garlic-infused hummus.

Perniciaro recommends Mary Mahoney’s, located across from the Beau Rivage Casino. Mahoney’s Old French House Restaurant specializes in Cajun-Creole food with their “world famous gourmet seafood gumbo” king size filet mignon, and whole broiled flounders topping the list.

The exact date the Old French House was built is unknown, but Mrs. Byrd Enochs, owner and occupant for over fifty years, estimated the date at around 1737. Mahoney’s reopened eight weeks and four days after the 2005 historic hurricane totally wiped out the kitchen. A favorite of Mississippi native, Elvis Presley, the restaurant is also rumored to be protected by a 2,000-year-old oak tree locals call “The Patriarch.”

Perniciaro also cited Emeril’s Gulf Coast Fish House at the Island View Casino and Resort in Gulfport as a savory eatery. Emeril Lagasse is, of course, a famous celebrity chef, owner of a restaurant chain across the country, television personality, and cookbook author.

Coastal Creole is featured in his restaurant in Gulfport; a combination of Lagasse’s signature “new New Orleans” cuisine (using Louisiana ingredients in different ways) with an emphasis on fresh seafood, produce, and farm products that are unique to the region. Gulfport is the larger of the two principal cities of the Gulfport-Biloxi, Mississippi Metropolitan Statistical area.

“Downtown Gulfport has also been revitalized,” Perniciaro reported. “The Half Shell Oyster Company has just recently opened. It features grilled, half-shell… any kind of oysters one would want. The restaurant is located in an old building that has been restored.”

Just as eating fresh seafood is a long-standing tradition on the Mississippu Gulf Coast, Biloxi’s custom of Blessing the Fleet dates back eighty years. The first ceremony took place in 1929 – the parish priest from an altar constructed on the shore of Biloxi’s Bay conducted Sunday Mass. Fishermen tied their decorated boats together in the bay and the priest stepped from deck-to-deck, blessing the boats.

Over the years the Annual Blessing of the Fleet has grown to include additional events, including the Fais Do-Do (a name for a Cajun dance party) or Shrimp Festival. This takes place the day before the Blessing and features various shrimp dishes, dancing, and the coronation of the Shrimp King and Queen who reign over the Festival and Blessing.

If anyone has a hankering to watch shrimp being ensnared “up close and personal,” that can be arranged also. On the Biloxi Shrimping trip, the net is set out and guests will learn exactly how it operates to catch not only shrimp along the way, but other creatures such as flounder, squid, oysterfish, blue crabs, and a variety of other species of marine life.

The entire catch will then be identified and presented for the guest’s inspection by the Captain. The seventy-minute trip embarks from the Small Craft Harbor on Highway 90 East at Main Street and is navigated in the calm, protected waters between Deer Island and the Bilox shoreline.

The <em>Tiger Shark</em> while beached in Biloxi - Photo by Marc Parker
The Tiger Shark while beached in Biloxi - Photo by Marc Parker

An abandoned shrimp boat named Tiger Shark had been stranded just off the Biloxi beach near the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor since the beginning of 2009. It was a derelict vessel, meaning that it had been abandoned and was no longer operational.

The Mississippi Gulf Fishing Banks (MGFV) decided to turn the vessel into an artificial reef fish habitat, so deployment was made; all fuel, oil, engines, and wood had to be removed and the vessel was pressure-washed. Holes were cut along the water line and wood patches were placed over the holes. The Tiger Shark was then pulled out into the gulf where it took about 45 minutes to sink.

Another type of boat called the schooner can be chartered for a voyage that departs from the Schooner Pier Complex. A schooner is a type of sailing ship with two or more masts rigged in a variety of ways. A professional captain and crew will take you on a 65’ authentic wooden schooner with two masts. The cruise along the Biloxi beachfront makes for an awe-inspiring trip. These “white-winged queens” were used in the late 1800s-early 1900s to harvest seafood along the Gulf Coast.

The schooners are a part of the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum that is planning to reopen adjacent to the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum across the street from the Schooner Pier Complex. The museum also felt Karina’s wrath in 2005; a conservative estimate of $8 million is being used to reconstruct some of the exhibits and displays at this time. A U. S. Coast Guard Memorial Pavilion is planned as one of the attractions on the museum’s campus. It will be used for public ceremonies, social events, receptions, and photo opportunities.

Biloxi, Mississippi has seen its share of disasters, but none have rivaled the impact that Hurricane Katrina wrought. The monumental tasks of rebuilding and reshaping the resort area are still in progress. Many of the casinos damaged in the storm have been reconstructed and are thriving again. The Biloxi of today is resolute, and the journey back from the brink is well under way.

“Many people think we were just blown away by Katrina.” Perniciaro remarked, and after a short pause, added, “But that’s not true. We’re still here, we’re getting better and better, and we’d love for everyone to visit to see for themselves!”

Article by Melissa Parker

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