The Gulf Coast Five Years Later

Seventy-five miles west of Fairhope, Alabama, we resumed our shoreline travel  in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Here you begin to see the devastation from Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005.

Shearwater Pottery, home of a well-known family of ceramic artists, was simply destroyed, its houses and pottery washed away by the 20-foot storm surge. They have rebuilt and are underway again. Across the inlet, ten miles west of there, in Biloxi, where the casinos begin, we started to see the sprouting shards of ancient oaks, their dead neighbors carved into sea animals by Marlin Miller, a chainsaw artist.

The casinos, of course, have been the first thing to be rebuilt, since they are the biggest source of revenue and taxes. This time, instead of being confined to barges on the water, they stand secure on land.

Across the street from the first casino we saw stood the round church of St. Michael, whose “open” sign beckoned us to stop. A friendly secretary admitted us into the spacious church, with its 30-foot stained glass windows surrounding the open space.

Built in 1964 – even before the end of Vatican II’s new directives – it was a genuine church-in-the-round — simple, honest, beautiful, inspiring. And then Katrina devastated it. The statue of St. Michael that had surmounted the adjoining chapel tower was found two blocks away. The first twelve feet of windows were destroyed and the whole building inundated.

The stained glass studio still had the original drawings and reconstructed the windows, which can now be raised up so that a future flood can simply wash through the building. Meticulously restored, it was reconsecrated a month ago. It is a truly remarkable worship space in every respect.

A mile further and we came to the Ohr-O’Keefe Art Museum designed by Frank Gehry. Yes, Frank Gehry, of  Bilbau fame! Half finished, its work interrupted by Katrina, it will become a destination to rival that of all the casinos. It will house not only the delicate and audacious ceramics of George Ohr, “the mad potter of Biloxi,” but traveling exhibits as well.

Currently, a set of Andy Warhol’s prints and an exhibition of stunning metal sculptures by the African-American artist Richmond Berthè occupy the completed gallery space, alongside fine work by a Mississippi ceramicist.

Gehry was enticed to the task by the presence of the giant live oaks on the site and designed the buildings to “dance among” them, indeed sharing form with their angular rooftops and walls.

Surrounded by the museum cluster stands a modest frame house, a reconstruction of a dwelling built in the late 19th century by an African-American carpenter named Pleasant Reed. Destroyed by Katrina, it was rebuilt to be a window into the history of the African-American people in the area, who form an integral part of Gulf Coast culture. Thus, the museum embraces both the almost forgotten story of its place and people as well as the global reach of an architect like Frank Gehry. Once again, “come on down!”

Traveling west from Biloxi along the coast road we passed mile after mile of devastation. Dozens of empty lots, their driveways mute exclamations of their abandonment, were interspersed with a renovated building here, a brand new condominium on stilts there. Trees blasted bare by the winds shouted forth sprigs of new growth to taunt the furies that had tried to kill them.

The pinhole snapshots from the newscasts can’t convey the desolation wreaked by this one storm, even five years later. Each successive city – Gulfport, Long Beach, Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian – revealed its miles of empty lots, broken trees, and shattered piers.

In some places the storm surge reached inland several miles to flood the homes and businesses of people who thought that they could never be touched by a hurricane’s surging waters. While there are notable signs of reconstruction, I couldn’t help thinking of the physical history that had been destroyed forever.

When we finally reached Waveland, our destination for the day, it seemed like we had been surveying a fifty-mile city that had been bombed and scoured by fire rather than a flood. In my next installment I will tell about the Gulfside Conference Center, its obliteration, and its plans for rebirth and renewal.