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Touring a lopsided landscape of renewal

Glittering new casinos tower over lots emptied by Hurricane Katrina as sightseers pass by in open-air buggies.

September 09, 2007|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

. -- It is just an empty lot, a block from the beach, with nothing to mark it but the Biloxi Tour Train parked outside, loudspeakers blaring.

The story that wafts through the thick, hot air is a standard Southern tourist tale: of Indian skeletons discovered under the floorboards of an art gallery and now exhibited through plexiglass cut into the floor.

But then Carla Beaugez, the driver and tour guide, pauses the CD.

"That was recorded before Hurricane Katrina," she says softly. "On Aug. 29, 2005, the studio and the skeletons went with the waters of Biloxi."

For decades, the Biloxi Tour Train -- two open-air buggies hitched together and pulled by a Jeep -- has carried tourists around this city, regaling them with romantic tales of Biloxi history: the New Orleans cotton broker who built an antebellum mansion for his bride, the trial attorney who inspired John Grisham novels, the mad potter with the 18-inch mustache who wrought sublime vessels out of the Mississippi mud.

Two years after Hurricane Katrina submerged Biloxi under a 30-foot swell of water, the tour provides a unique glimpse into what the city has lost and what the city has rebuilt.

Beaugez, 47, whose French ancestors settled here as shrimpers in the late 1800s, has led the tour for nearly a decade. After Katrina, she continues to follow the traditional route, roughly a seven-mile loop around the southeastern portion of the peninsula.

First she steers east, through the city's historic downtown business district, which is rebuilding, and then through the working-class residential neighborhood of East Biloxi, which is not. When she reaches the tip of the peninsula she turns west and hugs the coastline, which booms with glittering columns of concrete and steel.

Biloxi, on a narrow peninsula between a bay and the Gulf of Mexico, was incorporated as a city in 1896. Fishing, boat building and seafood processing were the main industries until the 1990s, when the state attempted to revive its economy by passing legislation to allow floating casinos.

From almost every part of Biloxi, opulent casino towers can be seen looming over flattened neighborhoods, some with entire blocks of empty lots. Eight of Biloxi's 10 casinos have been rebuilt, and many more are planned. Yet the city has only issued 300 permits for new homes, even though more than a quarter -- about 6,000 -- of its homes and businesses were destroyed.

A couple of blocks into the journey, crossing Reynoir Street on Howard Avenue, the tour passes a pink bungalow with a blue tarp roof. It stands just below the 32-story Beau Rivage Resort & Casino. The contrast is jarring, like many sights on the Biloxi tour.

Sometimes, Beaugez stops the train to reminisce outside homes where old men and women once sat on front porches -- or she pulls up in front of a row of empty slabs to appreciate a new view of the sea. Gone is the hospital where she was born. The cemetery where her ancestors are buried is heavily damaged.

Entering the Vieux Marche district, the city's historic main street, she picks up Van Moore, a man wearing a sweat-soaked T-shirt and clutching a plastic bag. He's unemployed and heading to the Peoples Bank to cash a check.

Moore jumps off on Lameuse Street and Beaugez toots her horn at James Avery, a construction worker from Memphis, Tenn., who has lived in Biloxi since October, working on an addition to the Peoples Bank.

Downtown is rebuilding, although not quite at casino pace.

As Beaugez regrets the passing of the Magnolia Hotel, built in 1847 and now boarded with plywood, the final electric guitar solo of Guns and Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" blasts out of the open doors of an upscale apartment building. It is being renovated by a local construction crew.

Beaugez points out businesses that have returned. Burger Burger, which serves long po' boys stuffed with hamburger, gravy, mustard and raw onions, was the first to reopen. The Ole Biloxi Schooner seafood restaurant in East Biloxi was demolished, but is now serving gumbo and po' boys in the heart of downtown. This was where President Bush marked the first anniversary of Katrina, paying tribute to ordinary Mississippians' efforts to rebuild.

Yet many other restaurants and stores have not come back, particularly farther east on Howard Avenue. The smell of French bread no longer wafts from Desporte's Avenue Bakery. Cars no longer line up outside the Jiffy-Jac Drive-In. Locals no longer huddle around Pho Palace's Vietnamese buffet.

When the tour moves into East Biloxi, home to generations of shrimpers from France, Vietnam, Croatia and Mexico, the breadth of devastation becomes clear: Whole blocks have been reduced to slabs; many of the houses still standing are empty.

"It took me a long time to come through here without crying," Beaugez says as she steers the tour through a section of Howard Avenue without houses.

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