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Hurricane Katrina's direct hit on the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been far overshadowed by the damage in New Orleans, but over the last decade, the region has quietly rebounded its visitor economy to levels approaching 2005.

People always attribute Hurricane Katrina’s horrors to New Orleans for obvious reasons, but the storm actually slammed into Mississippi’s Gulf Coast with a 28-foot wall of water — the highest ever storm surge recorded in the U.S.

Almost 30 feet of water at once shears a house off its foundation like scum off a Mississippi swamp. All that was left on the morning of August 30, 2005 was miles of piles of home wreckage spread along the beaches of Waveland and Bay St. Louis where Katrina’s eye made landfall, about 60 miles east of New Orleans.

Tomorrow marks the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. There’s a bunch of special events in Mississippi acknowledging the accomplishments in the region over the last decade, taking place from Biloxi in the east to the tiny town of Pearlington on the Louisiana border.

Tonight, for example, former Governor Haley Barbour is giving a presentation in Long Beach near Gulfport. The theme is “Overcoming Katrina: 10 Years of Progress” based on his stewardship of the region during Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, as described in his book: America’s Great Storm. Barbour will also be hosting former President George W. Bush earlier in the day.

In Waveland, the Ground Zero Hurricane Museum reopens this weekend, showcasing photography, videos and exhibits that explain the journey back to normalcy since Katrina.

As brutal as those images were in Waveland/Bay St. Louis in August 2005, the surreal flooding of New Orleans, with gruesome dead bodies floating in the water, and the sheer inanity of the state and federal governments’ bumbled recovery efforts there grabbed the lion’s share of national media attention. All of that exposure helped drive billions of dollars in assistance to New Orleans, although it wasn’t enough to rebuild many parts of the city.

Meanwhile in Mississippi within weeks after Katrina’s visit, a ragtag mix of volunteers from around the country started showing up in towns like Kiln, located on higher ground about 20 minutes north of Waveland. In the hometown of football star Brett Favre, the Kiln community created a small bunkhouse village to host the volunteers and store the daily shipments of donated construction materials, medical equipment, children’s clothes and canned food.

Many other volunteer operations set up shop along the Mississippi coast, and without much official direction or support, the locals and volunteers started rebuilding houses together one by one. The level of inefficiencies were extensive. For example, houses were constructed without permits, which required them to be rebuilt later or abandoned, and the operators of the Camp Coastal volunteer outpost in Kiln embezzled over $1 million.

However, the volunteers still provided a catalyst that sparked a sense of forward movement among the community toward the long road to recovery, and thousands of people began moving into new or repaired homes who otherwise would not have.

Memories Of Mississippi 2005

Considering the damage to it, the Walmart in Waveland reopened relatively quickly on the coastal Highway 90 in November 2005. The warehouse building soon evolved into a news sharing hub, meeting space and logistics nerve center. Then a Lowe’s construction store opened across the street in the fall of 2006, which aided the volunteer efforts considerably.

Slowly, a splintered sense of place began to re-emerge amid the sheer hopelessness of the situation for many residents without homes, exacerbated by the various failures of insurance companies in the region and the rise of draconian new building codes.

For volunteers working there in those early days, small groups would gather on the weekends to walk across the concrete slabs of missing vacation homes lining the beach. All that was left on the slabs was the linoleum in the bathrooms and kitchens. You could see where families once showered and cooked breakfast. People would just stand there on the concrete looking vacantly at the ground and then out to sea at the pretty beach, and then back at the long line of empty slabs.

Jimmy Buffett, who grew up in neighboring Alabama, came here later and filmed a video about the popular Fire Dog Saloon that once represented the soul of the laid-back Waveland/Bay St. Louis beach community.

As a testament to the locals’ attachment to their communities, the population of the three counties lining the 80-mile Mississippi Gulf Coast totaled 386,144 in 2014, slightly up from 383,142 in 2005. In New Orleans, Katrina displaced over one million people and roughly one quarter of those eventually returned.

“There’s a lot of sentimentality right now, of course, but mostly about how far we’ve come in the last decade,” says Renee Areng, executive director of Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast. “The real takeaway here is the resilience of our communities and the hope that people have for the future. The last ten years have really inspired that sense of hope.”

We asked Areng if there’s still a strong sense among the local residents that the state was overlooked and underfunded in favor of New Orleans by the federal government during the recovery, like there was in the years directly following Katrina, and for some people, even now.

She replied, “The real message here is that the Mississippi Gulf Coast is not just back, it has never looked better than it does today.”

Mississippi Gulf Coast By The Numbers

According to Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, total visitor spending in the three counties has been slowly increasing year-over-year coming out of the recession. For the 2014 fiscal year, visitor spend topped $1.8 billion compared to $2 billion in the 2005 fiscal.

Hotel capacity is also approaching 2005 levels. Presently, there are 2,811 hotel rooms in final planning and construction, which will push the total count along the coast to 16,648 rooms, about 95% of pre-Katrina’s 17,534 rooms.

Before the hurricane there were 12 casinos located on the Gulf, with the bulk of them in Biloxi. State law mandated at the time that casinos couldn’t be located on land, so all of them were built perched over the water on stilts. Katrina relocated them back onto shore in pieces, so the state changed the law shortly thereafter to drive job recovery and reclaim the tax base as quickly as possible.

It’s taken time to bring the casinos back, and gaming revenues are still a bit short of 2005 receipts. In December, the region will again have 12 casinos when the new Scarlet Pearl Casino Resort opens in Biloxi.

In both New Orleans and Mississippi following Katrina, people tended to support their local restaurants more often as a form of solidarity to protect the social fabric, which seems to be a pattern that stuck over the long term. Similar to what transpired in Louisiana, the amount of restaurants along the Gulf have increased by 27% since before the storm, from 547 restaurants in 2005 to 696 today.

Here are some more stats showing the growth in the visitor economy along the Mississippi Gulf Coast from pre-Katrina to today. Year-over-year gaming revenues are displayed below that.

Fiscal Year Timeframe Visitor Spending
FY 2005 July 2004 – June 2005 $2.0 Billion
FY 2006 July 2005 – June 2006 $1.026 Billion / Hurricane Katrina – August 2005
FY 2007 July 2006 – June 2007 $1.584 Billion
FY 2008 July 2007 – June 2008 $1.759 Billion
FY 2009 July 2008 – June 2009 $1.634 Billion / Recession
FY 2010 July 2009 – June 2010 $1.617 Billion / Recession & BP Oil Spill
FY 2011 July 2010 – June 2011 $1.759 Billion
FY 2012 July 2011 – June 2012 $1.784 Billion
FY 2013 July 2012 – June 2013 $1.801 Billion
FY 2014 July 2013 – June 2014 $1.81 Billion
Fiscal Year Timeframe Gaming Revenues (Local & Visitor)
FY 2005 July 2004 – June 2005 $1.25 Billion
FY 2006 July 2005 – June 2006 $594,828,791 / Hurricane Katrina – August 2005
FY 2007 July 2006 – June 2007 $1,190,556,479
FY 2008 July 2007 – June 2008 $1,306,711,001
FY 2009 July 2008 – June 2009 $1,172,629,002 / Recession
FY 2010 July 2009 – June 2010 $1,099,380,000 / Recession & BP Oil Spill
FY 2011 July 2010 – June 2011 $1,115,542,232
FY 2012 July 2011 – June 2012 $1,093,039,055
FY 2013 July 2012 – June 2013 $1,073,732,329
FY 2014 July 2013 – June 2014 $1,071,886,637
FY 2015 July 2014 – June 2015 $1,079,318,036

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Photo credit: The Ground Zero Hurricane Museum in Waveland, MS shows photos and remnants from Katrina's wreckage collected along the Mississippi coast over the last decade. Waveland's Ground Zero Hurricane Museum

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