What Can’t Be Replaced: We have lost the fragile balance of past and present.
Oct. 3, 2005 issue - I walk toward the beach, past the centuries-old oak that has overhung my family's cemetery lot for generations. Half is still standing—the other half, broken away. Ahead of me is one of my favorite historic houses in Biloxi, the Father Ryan House, named after former resident Abram Ryan, the so-called poet-priest of the Confederacy. Hurricane Katrina has reduced it to rubble. As far as I can see, nothing remains but the twisted shells of the stately, pillared houses that date back a century or more. We survivors of 1969's Hurricane Camille—with winds of more than 200 miles per hour—thought we'd never see such devastation again. This is worse.
The heart of New Orleans—what makes New Orleans New Orleans—survived Katrina. Biloxi's history has shattered. There's simply no going back. The Dantzler House, the Brielmaier House, the Tullis-Toledano Manor: the list of vanished treasures goes on. The entire Point Cadet area on the city's east end, the historic center of Biloxi's famous fishing industry, has disappeared. When I was growing up, catching your own seafood was a favorite pastime. I still remember visiting the man who made our trawls in his dusty shop on the Point. Now that shop, along with the wooden cottages that were built by boatmen and factory workers, are pulverized.
Something more than the buildings themselves has vanished in the storm. We have lost the fragile balance of past and present, the rich mix of Old South, black community and Cajun, Yugoslav—and, more recently, Vietnamese—shrimpers that made Biloxi so much more than an antebellum postcard.
Without our past, how will we find our future?
In the early decades of the 20th century, when my father was growing up on the Gulf Coast, Biloxi was a favored resort of Midwesterners intent on escaping the Northern winters. The winding road along the water—the precursor to Highway 90—was a ribbon of oyster shells, overhung with oaks. My father took the streetcar that ran down Howard Avenue and along the beach to school each morning. His uncle had been the first boy to graduate from Biloxi's new Central High School in 1900.
Years later, many of the grace notes remained in my own childhood. Each Christmas we'd drive along the beach to admire the finely decorated old homes, their tree lights sparkling through the cut-glass doors. Out in the gulf, at the end of a long pier, rose the three-story Biloxi Yacht Club, where we all went to see the sailboat races. With its rocking chairs and breezy porches, it was a throwback to earlier times.