Mississippi Yearning

What are the chances of the revived Gulf Coast resembling its former self?

Medium-sized image unavailable for this photo.
Houses on Dauphine Street in the Holy Cross neighborhood,
including the nearly restored home of Robert Smith (center)

Credit: Chris Granger

Driving along the waterfront highway that traces the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Chelius Carter passed the battered Victorian house in Long Beach known as Oakhaven and decided to turn back. Parking his car in a vacant lot, Carter picked his way through small drifts of debris to the wind- and wave-swept lawn of Oakhaven, whose surviving live oak trees framed a scenic vista of Mississippi Sound. The house still lay in ruins nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina, its downstairs walls and floors blown out by the wind and surge. All of its neighboring houses were gone. What remained was essentially a roof and the half-story below it, propped up by damaged studs and steel shoring posts.

"But," said Carter, who heads a cooperative venture known as Preservation House, "it can be fixed." In fact, plans were already underway to save the house, which was built in 1896.

Amid miles and miles of empty lots, where lonely porch steps are all that remain of countless historic homes, Oakhaven stands as a symbol of wounded survival, embodying a beleaguered yet determined preservation effort that has taken shape on the coast. "We'd just like to keep a little bit of what used to be," Oakhaven owner Magruder Corban later told me by phone, speaking from the vacant commercial building where he and his wife have been staying. "It's home, for one thing, but it's also one of the very few older homes left. It typifies what used to be."

What used to be was a seaside promenade lined with historic houses—some more than 200 years old—that ran intermittently for perhaps 50 miles across the Mississippi coast. The Pass Christian section, East Scenic Drive, was one of the largest architecturally intact historic areas in the South. That changed on Aug. 29, 2005, when Mississippi took the brunt of Katrina's 125-plus-mph winds and 30-foot surge.

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