Sunday, September 11, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print

Katrina reduces gracious resort town to rubble

Los Angeles Times

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. — Under the branches of ancient live oaks, life in this gracious resort town moved at a leisurely pace. The wide porches of century-old Southern mansions were made for languid afternoons. Camellia and magnolia blossoms scented the air. Yachts dotted the shimmering waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Hurricane Katrina wiped it all away.

The beachfront, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its trove of antebellum estates, is nothing more than a shattered rafter here, a twisted bicycle there.

The rustic fishing piers that jutted into the Mississippi Sound vanished, too. Only the concrete pylons remain. Hundreds of them rise like tombstones from the flat, calm water.

Farther inland, the elegant town that locals called "The Pass" has been reduced to a garbage dump. All that's left of many homes are the rooftops, stacked up in haphazard piles of red, brown and peach.

Antique furniture that graced meticulously restored houses survives only in bits and pieces: ornately carved knobs from a four-poster bed, splinters of gilded picture frames, slender legs from a dining room table. A beautiful oak dresser sits atop a pile of debris, a few damp bras hanging out of one drawer. Nearby is a red cedar chest filled with model trains and foul-smelling mud.

"Words can hardly express how devastated I feel," said Richard Cawthon, chief architectural historian with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. "Some of our finest architectural landmarks along the Gulf Coast have been obliterated. It's mind-boggling."

When it blossomed

Founded in 1699, Pass Christian blossomed in the decades before the Civil War.

Louisiana's elite, mostly sugar and cotton plantation owners, raced their yachts here from New Orleans. Much as wealthy New Yorkers took over the waterfront in Newport, R.I., the plantation owners made The Pass — cooler and less malarial than New Orleans — their own.

Many built "summer cottages" along the beach, with broad balconies, separate servants' quarters and 10,000 or more square feet of airy, high-ceilinged living space.

Over the years, homes were built in a jumble of styles: colonial, neo-classical, Victorian, Greek revival, even Craftsman bungalow. Framed by arching oaks and enormous azaleas, they looked eclectic but distinctively Southern; they were a world apart from the glitz and grit of the nearby casino towns of Biloxi and Gulfport, a few miles to the east.

Wealthy retirees

In recent decades, Pass Christian, a town of 6,600, became popular with wealthy retirees. They browsed the art galleries, bought shrimp and oysters from fishing boats and tried to ignore the encroachment of modern conveniences.

"Part of the charm was that they were able to maintain a tranquil, sleepy, Southern feel," said Marlo Kirkpatrick, author of the travel guide Mississippi Off the Beaten Path.

The town took a direct hit in 1969 from Hurricane Camille, a Category 5 monster with 230 mph winds. Several historic homes were damaged, but enough survived to maintain the character of the beachfront.

Katrina seems to have hit harder still.

"So much beautiful culture and history has been washed away. All those homes that stood watch over the Mississippi Sound so many years ... each one with its own personality," Kirkpatrick said. "It's heartbreaking. You could rebuild them, but it would never be the same."

Former Fire Chief Rusty Necaise said city officials do not yet know how many Pass residents died in the storm. The Harrison County coroner has confirmed 71 deaths in the area, which includes the towns of Biloxi, Gulfport and Long Beach, but that number could rise.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


Get home delivery today!