Mississippi's Morning After

Taking stock on the tempest-tossed coast

By Alan Huffman

Adding poignancy to disaster: a view of Katrina wreckage from within a waterfront house in Biloxi, Miss.

Credit: Mississippi Heritage Trust

When Hurricane Katrina began its westward drive into the Gulf of Mexico in late August, few residents of Bay St. Louis, Miss., a historic beachfront town about 50 miles east of New Orleans, made plans to leave. At that point, Katrina was just another red swirl on the Weather Channel map, the latest in a long line of potential disasters. Many residents viewed hurricanes the way streetwise city kids regard drug dealers—with a nonchalance that belies fear.

Those who lived in old houses, in particular, were encouraged by the fact that so many historic structures had weathered 1969's infamous Hurricane Camille, which raked the region with 200-mile-per-hour winds and a 25-foot storm surge. "This building survived Camille" was a common refrain, as if the galleried houses and filigreed churches of Mississippi's Gulf Coast were indestructible.

Although the Mississippi coast has its share of T-shirt shops and garish casinos, its architectural and cultural core was a 50-mile-long waterfront boulevard of antebellum mansions, Victorian cottages, and shotgun houses, many of them shaded by arching live oaks. These structures were solid, built on high foundations and girded with massive mortise-and-tenoned timbers. They had shutters that worked. They had outlived countless major hurricanes for more than a century. But after Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, most of them were gone.

In what may be the worst preservation disaster in the nation's history, the storm unleashed its most violent fury on Mississippi's coast, where an estimated 350 buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places suffered total destruction. Katrina ripped through 15 historic districts in Mississippi and wreaked havoc on thousands of historic buildings, listed and unlisted. The effects were felt more than 150 miles inland, in Jackson, where winds tore the roof from the Old Capital Museum of Mississippi History, causing approximately $1.5 million in damage.

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