BYLINE: Rick Jervis, USA TODAY
Pummeled by Hurricane Katrina, then battered by the BP oil spill, this seaside city seemed on the brink of collapse, its tourist-driven economy shriveling under one catastrophe after another.
Today, a glimmering, Frank Gehry-designed art museum stands where storm debris once piled up. Gamblers crowd the tables at the Hard Rock and IP casinos. Highway 90, the waterfront artery once littered with splintered homes and upended barges, is sprouting restaurants and rebuilt homes. And this month, Jimmy Buffett ushered in the grand opening of his $62million Margaritaville Casino & Restaurant on the east side of town with a concert.
About 4million visitors came to the city last year, still down from the more than 8million that visited pre-Katrina but significantly higher than the years immediately after the storm, according to city figures. Last year, the city scored $20million from casino revenue, a sign that the casinos — which finance nearly half the city’s budget — are rebounding.
Many Gulf Coast communities still are struggling to recover from past storms and the oil disaster, but Biloxi is roaring back, recovery officials and locals say. “Everything seems to be rebounding,” said Barbara Johnson Ross, curator at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, which opened in November. “All of a sudden, it seems like we’re turning a big corner.”
Things weren’t always so rosy. A 20-foot storm surge from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 smashed the city, destroying 5,000 homes and businesses — one-fifth of its stock — unmooring floating casinos and chasing away a sizable chunk of its population, city spokesman Vincent Creel said. The population still hasn’t returned to past levels, numbering 44,000 residents, down from 50,000 before the storm, he said.
Then in 2010, while the city was still recovering, the BP oil spill chased more tourists away. Barrier islands kept most of the heavy oil from reaching Biloxi’s beaches, but tar balls appeared on beaches, and the city’s charter fishing and tourism industries took another hit.
Biloxi officials turned to federal disaster funds to rebuild. Federal dollars were used to build a $13 million civic center and library downtown and a $10 million, 24,000-square-foot visitors center, both recently completed, according to the Mississippi Development Authority, which distributed much of the funds. Last month, work crews began a federally funded $355 million project to replace 100 miles of city streets and storm drains — the biggest such project in city history.
“If you look at the way communities such as Biloxi spent that money, it’s been spent well and with the long term in mind,” said Lee Youngblood, a development authority spokesman.
As the projects rolled out, the $38million Ohr-O’Keefe Museum opened with a sluggish start in November.
Visitor numbers the past two months have begun to climb, including 450 visitors on Memorial Day, Ross said. Designed by renowned architect Gehry, the museum consists of six buildings among towering live oaks off Highway 90. Four crumpled stainlesssteel “pods,” two stories tall, soon will house the ceramic collections of the museum’s namesake, George Ohr, world-renowned artist and self-proclaimed “Mad Potter of Biloxi.” Contemporary art will hang in the other buildings, she said.
Bigger challenges loom for Biloxi than museum attendance counts, said Reilly Morse, policy director for the Mississippi Center for Justice. Lower-income neighborhoods, particularly in the eastern part of the city, are blighted by vacant lots and abandoned homes, he said. “Biloxi as a whole is probably doing pretty well relatively to other cities on the coast,” Morse said, “but the areas with the lowest-income neighborhoods are still lagging.”
New employers such as the Margaritaville Casino & Restaurant in East Biloxi certainly help, he said. The casino has added 1,000 jobs.
On a recent afternoon, visitors squealed at craps tables as the din of slot machines reverberated through the color-splashed casino. Susan Dei, 56, and her mother, Lucille, 80, both from Wisconsin, celebrated a lucky spin at the slots with frozen margaritas. Lucille Dei said she has been coming to the Gulf Coast for 14 years but thought cities such as Biloxi might never recover from the damage of Katrina. She’s dazzled at the transformation. “It’s amazing how they could go from disaster to all of this,” she said. “It looks better than it did before.”
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