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The Katrina Tour

Travel the 75-mile length of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and inland into South Mississippi’s pineywoods communities and you will understand why great minds like Ben Franklin, Mother Theresa, Winston Churchill and others tell us repeatedly that out of adversity comes opportunity and strength.

Hurricane Katrina is a huge reminder of that.

The Biloxi Lighthouse shines, a defiant symbol among defiant symbols of Katrina recovery. Repairs on the 1848 cast- iron tower, now a proud image on all Mississippi license tags, will be completed this year.

Meanwhile, the lighthouse is stabilized and is one of the many post-Katrina wonders that causes the national media and tourism gurus to take note. That comeback spirit is everywhere, in every town, for every visitor to see.

Not to be overlooked is the Friendship Oak of Long Beach. Its 500-year-old limbs stood strong although the buildings of the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast surrounding it were washed through.

Part of what you will see in an exploratory drive of this post-Katrina region is the future, and that’s what surrounds this historic ancient Live oak. USM will restore the vintage 1920s buildings and has brought to this beachfront campus a new emphasis on film and art.

Renewal also comes to “The Old VA,” a veteran’s hospital donated to Gulfport after the storm. This pristine beachfront property will become a resort for visitors and locals. When you drive by the sadly battered historic Spanish Mission buildings, it helps to know that.

>strong>Awakening the future

Interpreting what you see is no easy task for locals, who lost treasured landmarks, so imagine what it is like for those unfamiliar with the architecture and heritage of a region finding itself in fast-forward mode. For a community carving opportunity out of adversity, the future is also now.

On that note, eagles nest at the newly opened Audubon Nature Center in Moss Point. Children play again at the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center in Gulfport. Pass Christian, which miraculously still boasts gorgeous homes on the east end of Scenic Drive, will raise a pole at West Beach Boulevard and Barkley Drive to show Katrina’s high water mark at 34.9 feet.

Construction of the innovative Frank Gehry-designed museum to American art potter George E. Ohr continues, and the picturesque Old Biloxi Cemetery also in that city looks as it did before Katrina toppled historic monuments. On Biloxi Town Green, a Katrina memorial is the first to be completed in the region.

The downtowns of Ocean Springs and Bay St. Louis hum with an artsy quaintness that marked them before the storm. Monies are set aside to restore Waveland’s oldest remaining public building, a 1927 school that, once renovated, will be a civic center.

A “Replant South Mississippi” project promises coveted oaks for future generations, and some of the oaks that Katrina killed are now wooden sculpture along Beach Boulevard.

Our food goes with everything Sample the food for which this region is famous. Homespun restaurants, many specializing in seafood or ethnic fare, are serving again across the Coast. An amazing number of favorite eateries are reopened elsewhere.

Seek out a po-boy shop and bring your sandwich to one of the many parks improved since the storm. Watch pelicans and marsh life at Fountain Pier Marine Education Park in D’Iberville, or sit among the ancient oaks of Pascagoula’s Beach Park. There, the city has built a Katrina memorial, marking the height of the standing water and waves. It includes the inscription: “May the winds of destruction and the waves of sorrow forever remind us of the opportunity and hope we have found,”

You can perch on a plank at a restored public pier or harbor to study sea birds and sunsets, or buy an inexpensive crab net.

More such public structures will be built back, better and stronger, as are the two bridges now open over Biloxi Bay and the Bay of St. Louis.

Their design-as-you-go construction is amazing and allowed for quicker openings of these essential water corridors. Join the locals in the new phenomenon of walking or riding a bike in the special “people lane” of each bridge. The view is unbelievable.

Signs of change and defiance Newer chapters of our history are obvious, even to the visitor.

High-rise casino resorts and condominiums, some built since the storm, dot the coastal skyline and the gaming industry is doing better than ever as it helps buoy the recovery economy.

Vacant lots tell their stories through cement slabs or steps to nowhere, but as you drive through downtowns and neighborhoods in hard-hit areas, note the renovations and temporary structures, including trailers for government offices and temporary Katrina cottages, courtesy of Uncle Sam until homes are rebuilt.

Signs tell of defiance, such as the one at the now-tent Catholic church, St. Clare in Waveland: “Katrina was big, but God was bigger.” In each community, look for similar words of defiance.

Revival, slow but sure, includes new houses now on stilts or chain walls — a rarity before the storm. If you see a sign that has the letters “MDAH,” you are looking at a restoration project partly paid by a $26 million government historic preservation grant to save Mississippi’s older architecture, be it a house, business or public building.

Cherishing what remains

“It doesn’t take a bureaucrat from Washington to tell the people of Mississippi the importance of place to one’s cultural identity,” Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities observed when he toured.

The preservation story that wins national attention is of Beauvoir, the 1850s antebellum estate where former U.S. statesman and Confederate president Jefferson Davis spent his retirement. Katrina ripped away Beauvoir’s distinctive high porches, even 8-foot support piers. The restored museum house has reopened, but few would guess at the $3.9 million in damage repaired by government preservation funds, for Beauvoir looks as it did in Davis’ time.

Such magic cannot be worked on the entire coastline, of course. What you will see as you explore is an eclectic mix of the salvaged and the ruined, the old and the new. It is a sight worth seeing and revisiting as we rebound from the nation’s worst cultural disaster.