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Published: December 6th 2013
The Gulf Coast of Mississippi
From New Orleans we followed on our guideline Route 10 east over the edge of Lake Ponchartrain. We did not cross the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway that crosses the large lake that broke through the levees and flooded the bowl of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The causeway crosses its center headed northwards for nearly 24 miles (36.8 km) and is the world’s longest bridge over continuous water. We crossed over the easterly bridge, called the ‘Twin Spans’ bridge that had been severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina and its easterly span had only reopened in July 2009. This bridge is 5.4 miles long (about 8.7km) and is very impressive (and our first experience of these long southern bridges that I have already written about). We drove very slow and admired the view over the lake on the left and the gulf on the right. It is a very strange sensation driving over water for miles!
As we crossed into Mississippi our first stop, as has become our habit, was the visitor center. This one was located just off Route 10 and just across the border with Louisiana. We asked the attendant there about the possibility
of live jazz in the area and were promptly informed that ‘Mississippi is a ‘Blues’ State! Mississippi takes its blues very seriously. She handed us the Official Map of the Mississippi Blues Trail which contained a list of the locations for over 100 ‘Markers’ telling the story of the Blues through words and images of bluesmen and women, their times and their music, and how the places they lived and the times in which they lived influenced their music. (There is a marker for Cassandra Wilson in Jackson, but we did not get that far north into the state.)
The attendant also gave us a map of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and recommended, if we had the time, to travel along the waterfront Route 90 and that is what we did. This area was also devastated by Hurricane Katrina and nearly all the buildings we passed had been built since then. The local homes were simply swept away by wave surges upwards of thirty feet. We also passed many sites where houses once stood and where now all that was left was the concrete foundation slab and a ‘for sale’ sign sticking into the ground. There were a few
mobile homes parked on some of the sites. The new houses were nearly all built on stilts.
We stopped in Ocean Springs where another very helpful and informative visitor center attendant told us the reason why a lot of people aren’t rebuilding was the increase in insurance costs. His parents’ house, about 10 miles inland from the coast, received only modest damage of a few roof tiles, yet their insurance premium has gone up more than one thousand per cent since Katrina. Even with insurance payouts, many people simply can’t afford to rebuild and are forced to live in mobile homes on their land and/or try to sell the land. There are very few buyers, the attendant told us. The visitor center attendant showed us photos of the massive wave surges in which the houses looked like doll houses against the height of the waves. The structures simply could not withstand the awesome power of the storm. ‘But we heard very little about the devastation of this part of Mississippi’ we said to him. That is because relatively few people died during the hurricane; they had mostly evacuated inland to higher ground. And it wasn’t the hurricane that did
all the damage in New Orleans but the fact that the levees broke, people hadn’t evacuated and were killed by the flood waters from Lake Ponchartrain (and not the Mississippi river which did not overflow its banks). Mississippi people, he told us, just cleaned up the mess and got on with their lives (sort of like Mainers after a blizzard) while the people of New Orleans just blamed the government and held out their hands for compensation payments, he informed us.
Ocean Springs is a very cute little town. In fact, its Main Street won the 2013 Great American Main Street Award from the National Trust (it sounds very similar to Ireland’s ‘Tidy Towns’ competition). There are over 140 small businesses on the main street and surrounding downtown streets, ranging from art and ceramic pottery galleries and fashion boutiques, to photography studios and a local brewery, bars and restaurants – all local, (not a chain store to be found at all). They even have their own currency, the Pelican Pound that was accepted in all the local shops! We spent a very enjoyable few hours here strolling and browsing and window-shopping.
Before Ocean Springs we made quick stops and walkabouts in Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian and Long Beach. And we drove through Biloxi. Biloxi is the largest of the Mississippi Gulf Coast towns at 45,000 people and the center of Mississippi tourism in that there are many high rise resorts and massive casinos here. We did not stop to gamble but drove on. On the other side of Biloxi we briefly visited Gautier and then over-nighted in Pascagoula (again the wonderful names of towns). All of these small Mississippi Gulf Coast towns are very quaint and reminded us of the Maine coastal towns of Rockport, Camden and Rockland.
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