It’s where pirates buried their treasures, bootleggers hid their stash during Prohibition and the government secretly trained attack dogs during World War II, and now a bigger chunk of Cat Island off the Coast belongs to the people of Mississippi.
On Friday, Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann announced BP, which bought the land in 2011 to aid cleanup after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010, has sold the east beach area of the island and it now belongs to the state. The eastern end makes up the top of the T-shaped island about 8 miles off the coast of Gulfport.
In the seventh-floor conference room of Hancock Bank, with a view of Cat Island, Hosemann said the land was sold for $13.7 million. No state money was spent to acquire the land, and the cost of the transfer is being paid by the federal Mississippi Coastal Improvements Program.
“After two centuries, Mississippi is getting its island back,” he said. With the transfer to the state, “We are ensuring your grandchildren’s grandchildren will be able to enjoy this natural treasure in perpetuity.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to start in February or March to re-nourish the eastern beach of the island, restoring the Goose Point area to its pre-1998 condition and adding 40 acres. Hosemann said the state had to own the entire swath of land to qualify for the $15 million in replenishment funds.
In an agreement he’s never seen before in Mississippi, Hosemann said all parties agreed to an equal land swap between the state and the National Park Service. The state gets Goose Point and the National Park Service gets a 150-foot swath of land and the right to build a pier at a later date.
“So there will be public access,” Hosemann said, but there also will be conservation covenants that can be enforced by state officials and any of Mississippi’s residents.
“All 3 million of you own this and all 3 million of you have the ability to protect it in the future,” he told Mississipians.
“What a treasure, y’all,” Hosemann said as he watched drone footage over the island with a canal running through the center.
BP did not reveal how much it paid for the island in 2011, but Hosemann said he thinks the company sold it for less than it paid.
George Boddie, whose family has owned much of the island since 1911, was impressed with Hosemann’s knowledge of the history of Cat Island and with his passion for protecting and restoring the island.
“He’s been out there and waded and he’s familiar with the place,” Boddie said of Hosemann.
The state wanted Cat Island for two reasons, Hosemann said: To keep the land for Mississippians to enjoy and to protect the people in the cities along the Coast and the shoreline. “This is a barrier island and it’s a barrier to hurricanes,” he said.
Boddie said he’s seen the shoreline of the island erode by 400 feet in his lifetime, and believes the state will see that it is restored. He also gave credit to BP for cleaning up the oil.
“The beach is clean,” he said.
Three houses remain on the island and Boddie said he’ll continue to spend time there. “My last trip will be my ashes,” he said.
Bay St. Louis Mayor Les Fillingame, who remembers fishing all night for flounder at Cat Island, said the acquisition is historic. “We really are looking forward to it being a public destination,” he said.
The Department of Marine Resources will oversee the daily maintenance of the land. Jamie Miller, executive director, said scientists will be going to the island to inventory the animals and plant and start to talk about ho to accomplish public access.
7 things to know about Cat Island
▪ It is the western most island of the four barrier islands that form the southern boundary of Mississippi.
▪ The island has an unusual “T” shape and is approximately 2000 acres
▪ It was discovered by the French in 1699. Juan De Couevas acquired the island by Spanish land grant in the 1780s.
▪ The Boddie family purchased the island in stages from 1911 to 1934.
▪ A small subdivision was platted with a canal system and 45 lots on about 10 acres.
▪ Except for a couple of houses, the island is a mix of maritime forest, estuarine marsh, sand dunes and beaches.
▪ It is home to a number of rare, threatened, endangered species of plants and animals.
Cat Island Fact Sheet, Mississippi Secretary of State