When shops and eateries opened days after Katrina, the Coast rejoiced

The day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, it was apparent the South Mississippi landscape would be forever changed.

Pavement that defined streets had crumbled away as the storm surge inundated the Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. Trees that had withstood hundreds of years of storms were uprooted. Homes and businesses were moved from their foundations, or were just gone. In those that were left, a high-water line delineated the height of the loss and destruction.

It appeared South Mississippi was broken, but the people who lived and operated businesses here would prove to be the glue that would hold the battered counties together. In Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties, some places that hadn’t been badly damaged reopened their doors as soon as they could.

Dolly’s: Heart of the Kiln

Dolly’s Quick Stop in Kiln opened a couple of days after Katrina made landfall — long before power was restored to its building.

“We cooked everything we had,” said co-owner Dolly Rester Lee, “without electricity.”

The convenience store used propane to operate its fryers, grill and oven. Lee’s husband, Steve, his brother, Keith, and Keith’s then-wife, also named Dolly, along with their children and immediate family, gave customers biscuits and hot coffee the first day. About 10 people were let in at a time, and the cashiers in front used calculators and flashlights to figure totals. They gave hot food away and rounded down to the nearest dollar for all other items in the store.

After power was restored, Dolly’s began selling gasoline and was able to start taking orders again — water, beer and hot food were the most popular sellers.

Dolly Rester Lee said the store had trouble getting food in at first because one of the main vendors, Sysco, was based in New Orleans and its warehouse had flooded. But another vendor, US Foods, had a warehouse in Jackson and was able to deliver.

Kacey Peterson, daughter of Keith and Dolly Lee, remembers the first time she spoke with a US Foods representative on the phone. It was about a week after Katrina.

“He asked how we were doing, and I just started crying because I was so overwhelmed with the intensity of what was going on,” she said. “It was so much easier to tell him what we had in the store versus what we didn’t have in the store.”

The Dolly’s crew — family and many of the closest teenage friends of Lindsey Lee-Bounds, Keith Lee’s daughter — had no idea what would be coming on the US Foods truck. But it was cooked. And the community was grateful.

Keith Lee and two of his nephews were making regular trips to Sam’s Club in Slidell and buying anything that could fit in their horse trailer to bring back to the store. He would bring back Hot Pockets, biscuits, candy, canned soft drinks, paper towels and diapers.

“He was making daily trips to Sam’s because we couldn’t keep anything in stock in the store,” Peterson said.

Lee-Bounds, who was 15 years old at the time, remembers the community coming together at her parents’ store, seeing people they thought had been lost to the storm, using cellphones that had reception, and getting hot food and a cold drink. At one point, medical professionals even set up in the parking lot and administered tetanus shots.

Dolly’s also became a drop-off spot for disaster-relief items such as ice, water, clothing and MREs.

“It wasn’t just a convenience store at that point —it was a safe haven,” Lee-Bounds said. “It was almost a normal place at that time.”

Shade, food, smiling faces

In Biloxi, Thai Passion came away with very little damage in Katrina’s wrath, and the restaurant, like Dolly’s in Kiln, operated a gas grill and fryers. The popular eatery, now named Shady’s New World Cuisine, opened as soon as it could, Shady’s general manager Vee Langston said.

Langston said owners Chuck and Kay Shafer wanted to help people who needed something to eat or drink.

“Chuck and Kay thought it was the best way they could assist the people around them,” he said.

Biloxians as well as military personnel, Red Cross volunteers and off-duty police and firefighters rallied around the Pass Road restaurant. Sun Herald staff members who worked at the newspaper after Katrina remember Thai Passion being open immediately and offering gumbo and other food items to customers.

The restaurant’s cooks could not get the ingredients for their Asain dishes immediately after Katrina, so the Shafers improvised and cooked hamburgers and hot dogs, Langston said. It quickly became a meeting place for volunteers, emergency relief officials and residents who wanted to kick back and have a burger and a cold beer.

“It became a haven for every single person out here that was volunteering, helping, or rebuilding the Coast,” Langston said.

Langston said the restaurant would sometimes stay open until 2 or 3 a.m. as customers sat and told their stories around the dinner table or at the bar.

On the wall at Shady’s, a framed picture of the Red Cross symbol hangs near a window. It is signed by relief volunteers from across the country, thanking Thai Passion for being open and serving their needs after the hurricane.

Shady’s rebranding pays homage to Katrina.

“It was (renamed) because of how Katrina decimated the Coast, and it was a new world after that,” Langston said. “You had to build everything back from scratch.”

Doughnuts in Gulfport

About two weeks after Katrina made landfall, Lee Lee LeBatard and her brother “struck a deal” with Mississippi Power to get power restored at Quality Bakery in downtown Gulfport.

“Mississippi Power was at my brother’s house in Lyman restoring power,” LeBatard said. “He said, ‘I sure wish I could get power to my business. I could get you guys some doughnuts.’ ”

The next morning, power crews were setting up temporary poles outside the bakery, LeBatard said.

At 4 a.m. the next day, LeBatard parked near St. John Catholic Church and threw the supplies she had into a bin and rolled her way to the storefront on 25th Avenue near 17th Street.

“I looked like a bag lady with my stuff in that garbage can, rolling across the street,” LeBatard said.

As she was walking, she heard someone yell, “Halt!” A National Guard member asked LeBatard where she was going, and she said she was going to her bakery across the street.

“One of the guardsmen said, ‘Lady, there is no bakery over there,’ ” she said. She pointed to the sign in the window.

LeBatard and her brother had to get special permission from then-Gulfport Police Chief Alan Weatherford to get to the store before curfew and open its doors.

“The next morning when we opened up, we had a line of National Guardsmen, M-16s on their shoulders, wanting doughnuts and chocolate milk,” she said. “Everyone who came to the store wanted bread and milk, because they couldn’t get it anywhere. We made bread, doughnuts, cookies, cakes and petits fours. We tried to be as normal as possible.”

Corporate chains cared

In the days, weeks and months after Katrina, many corporate-owned restaurants and local places also opened their doors to customers. Many residents remember the Waffle House restaurants on Landon Road and U.S. 49 reopening days after the storm. Tina Mackins was a Waffle House manager at the time.

“People were so happy and thankful,” she said. “We could only be open from like 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. because of the curfew but (Waffle House) stayed slam-packed. Waffle House corporate took great care of our employees with gas for our cars and generators for home and fed us and our families.”

Ruby Tuesday restaurants in D’Iberville and Moss Point also offered necessities for their employees and reopened quickly after Katrina.

“In order to clear out the food that would end up going bad, we cooked it all and gave it to our employees,” former employee Morgan Petersen-Taylor said. “Ruby Tuesday corporate sent truckloads of supplies and cash to give away. I was pretty amazed.”

In Waveland, high school students congregated at the Sonic Drive-In on U.S. 90 when it opened a few months after the storm. It was one of the first fast-food places open in Hancock County, joining Diamondhead’s Dairy Queen and Burger King.

Students also got jobs at Sonic, and carhops who worked at the Waveland and Long Beach restaurants said people were very generous. It was easy for the carhops to leave with nearly $200 tips for a day’s work.

In East Biloxi, Le Bakery was a staple for relief workers as soon it reopened.

Courtney Peterson worked at Hooters in Gulfport and remembers reopening the restaurant about a month after Katrina.

“I remember we served canned drinks and everything was on paper plates,” she said. “I also remember when I walked in there for the first time after we opened back up, my manager, Peter, hugged me so tight. He hugged all of the employees —cooks, Hooters girls —didn’t matter. He was relieved we were all OK. Then he asked, ‘Can you put on a uniform and clock in, please?’ ”

It would be nearly impossible to list all the stores and restaurants that opened as soon as possible after Katrina, but Coast residents, business owners said, are forever grateful for all of those places that brought a sense of normalcy back to South Mississippi so quickly.

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