They came first from Texas and a few days later started pouring in from Florida, seeking refuge from the hurricanes disrupting their lives and finding it in Biloxi, a place that knows about the power of storms.
“Good morning. How are you?” they hear the minute they open the door to the impressive Biloxi Visitors Center, built after Hurricane Katrina wrecked the old building and much of the city.
“Welcome to Biloxi,” Yvette Mulcahy calls out to them.
While petite, her super-sized personality shines like the beacon in the lighthouse directly in front of the Southern-style building. She is the first person many Biloxi visitors actually meet, and those fleeing hurricanes need a dose of her cheerful attitude and compassion.
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“We’re evacuees,” they tell her, from Ocala and Naples and Fort Myers, Florida, where the storm passed the night before, and Georgia, where the storm was targeting. She hears their stories and feels their pain. She went through Katrina, after all, and she watched the reports of Hurricane Irma all weekend after her son and daughter-in-law were called back from a trip to Canada to the Florida hospital where they work. Irma passed right over them but they are safe, she shares.
“There’s so much human kindness out there,” she tells these people who came to the visitors center in search of information about restaurants or to pass some time until they could head home. She gives them that, and adds the story of the million volunteers who flooded in to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina and how people were so kind to each other.
She also fills a bag with maps and coupons, calls to find them a hotel room, knows the price of local shrimp, tells them about half-price deals at the local casinos, and says it’s her job to give them a taste of Biloxi. She just hopes the mayor, who approves her paycheck, doesn’t know what a great job she has.
‘Ambassador for the city’
“She’s such a good ambassador for the city,” says Bill Raymond, historical administrator for the city and manager of the Visitors Center.
She’s been on the job for 27 years, before there were casinos in Biloxi. The visitors center was in the Victorian Brielmaier House, across from Biloxi City Hall. Gerald Blessey was mayor and his mother’s garden club took care of the landscaping, she recalls.
Back then, she said, “The locals felt that the visitors center belonged to the visitors.” The new Visitors Center with its twin fireplaces, double porches, a theater showing the story of Katrina twice a day and a museum of the city’s past — “this belongs to the locals,” she said. “This belongs to Biloxi and that’s the difference. Their memories, their history is in the museum.”
While the garden club meets in the back room, visitors Monday morning from Florida, Illinois and Arizona linger, helping themselves at Mulcahy’s invitation to just-brewed coffee and accepting a wand that narrates a self-guided tour of the exhibits and history room.
“Everything we have here is free,” she tells them, but with a smile says that offer doesn’t apply when they step over the threshold of the gift shop.
She laughs. She jokes. She even doles out hugs to those most in need.
She is past retirement age, yet still works Mondays and Wednesdays. “I hadn’t planned on retiring,” she explains.
The first place snowbirds come when they arrive in Biloxi for the winter is to visit Mulcahy, Raymond said. “They’ll look for Yvette,” he said, and if she’s not there they make it a point to come back.
They sent her a postcard from Paris, cookies from London and ask if she remembers them from the 150,000 people who visit the center each year.
She’s not “from Biloxi” as the locals say. Both her father and husband served in the military and one of their sons was born in Colorado, one in Massachusetts and one in Germany.
“Who would want to be a civilian?” she wonders after seeing the country and the world.
‘We came here to thaw out’
Unlike many military families who retire to South Mississippi, they never were stationed at Keesler Air Force Base. Their last assignment was in North Dakota, “So we came here to thaw out,” she quips. “Home is here,” she says.
“I’ve known you for 25 years and you haven’t changed a bit,” Raymond tells her. They joke constantly and when Mulcahy begins talking about her late husband, David Mulcahy, Raymond chimes in, “He was a saint.”
Yet Raymond praises her for cooking her husband a three-course dinner every night. She said he might call during the day and ask, “Do I smell spaghetti sauce?” She could have a roast in the oven but would start making the spaghetti he craved, she said.
She was a stay-at-home mom and when she’s not working she likes cooking, cleaning and yard work. In addition to three sons, she has three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
When the doctors gave her husband two weeks to two months to live, “he lasted 5 years,” she said, and they traveled from Biloxi to MD Anderson in Houston those five years for treatment.
“To me, life is really just a book of memories,” she said, and lived right, there are more good chapters at the end of the book.
“Life is good,” she said. “You’ll get no complaints from me.”
About the series
Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.