It can be depressing. Seeing so many neighbors, friends and relatives lose their homes, their businesses, their vehicles. While things are slowly returning to what passes for “new normal” after Hurricane Katrina, people are looking for a way to get out and have fun.
Many of the Coast’s most popular nightclubs were located in beachfront areas destroyed by the storm. That is particularly true of the booming casino nightclub businesses. But people still need their “Cheers,” the neighborhood bar where they can meet friends and “everyone knows your name.”
So, for the nightclubs still left on the Coast, business is booming.
“I would say my business has doubled since Katrina,” says Jenny Salter, owner of Castaways on U.S. 90 in Ocean Springs. “I have a lot of customers coming in from other places. I felt so guilty because I didn’t really suffer any damage, but people are very happy they have somewhere to go. They say, ‘We are so glad you are open so we can get away from the disasters of our lives, even if just for a few hours.’”
Salter reopened five days after Katrina hit using generators for electricity. The bar turned into a meeting place for people cut off from usual phone and Internet connections. A notice board was put up for people who were looking for news of friends.
When people come in, many are coping with major losses as a result of the disaster. “A lot of people don’t have any idea what they are going to do yet, whether they will stay or go,” Salter said. “They will wait and see what happens, and if jobs become available again at the casinos. Some people come in here to forget about it, have a couple of drinks and relax. This place is relaxed. There is more of a sense of normalcy than if they are at home.”
Salter, who has been on the Coast for 14 years, said most people who have lived on the Coast for a long time are staying and making the best of things. The people who are talking about leaving are those who haven’t been here very long.
“It was a shock for them,” she said. “I’m going to stay. This is my home. I love it down here. Even if I had lost my business, I still would have stayed. I think that is how most of the local people feel.”
Cooking for the community
In addition to locals, Castaways is getting a lot of business these days from contractors. One, a man from Florida who has a tree service, is camped out in the backyard. He has a huge meat smoker on a trailer, and every other Sunday at 2 p.m. provides free barbecue to all comers.
“If you know some people who want to eat for free, send them down,” Salter said. “Jim Able, Able’s Tree Service, has a barbecue trailer he brought up from Florida. Feeding people is his way of giving back to the community. He probably barbecues $400 worth of meat. It is the best barbecue you ever tasted.”
Bill Lee, owner of the Water Hole Saloon, also had little damage and opened up running on generator power after the storm.
“We have really been packed out over here,” Lee said. “Our business is a little more than double the normal. We have a lot of workers from other places. Some people don’t have anywhere else to go. They may have lost their home or they don’t have television at home.”
The Water Hole Saloon is one of the few sports bars left on the Coast, and is particularly popular for Sunday afternoon football — drawing people from Biloxi and even Gulfport.
There is a sea of “Help Wanted” signs out at local restaurants, which are serving limited menus and often run out of food because of the huge demand. But Lee hasn’t had any trouble finding adequate labor.
“We have three employees here who lost everything,” Lee said. “Naturally, they want to come in and get all the hours they can so they can make extra money and get some clothes and things again.”
Lee said out-of-state workers mingle with locals at the bar, with contractors talking about where they are from and the job they are doing here. Locals are talking about what they lost and are cleaning up.
“Everybody’s wants to get relaxed,” Lee said. “They want to have a good time, and forget their problems for a minute.”
In Biloxi, few nightclubs are left. But one mainstay, the Upstairs Downstairs club that has been located in downtown Biloxi for 28 years, plans to reopen soon.
“Hopefully we will open in another couple of weeks,” said Glenn Mattina, co-owner of Upstairs Downstairs, which has darts, pool tables, videos games and karaoke downstairs and live music upstairs on weekends. “We are waiting on a roof. That is the main thing. I think people want to get out. But you only have one way for people to get over here, and that is over the I-110 bridge. That is a hassle.”
One recent weekend night it took people an average of an hour just to get onto the I-110 bridge going out of Biloxi. Some said it reminded them of waiting in the gas lines after the hurricane.
“The traffic situation is really bad during certain times of the day,” Mattina said. “But I imagine it won’t be so bad from 9 to 10 p.m. at night, and that is when people go out to a club. People want to go out and relax and try to forget this nightmare we are all experiencing.”
Mattina said a lot of people are going to the closest place to relax. And the shrinking number of bars available means those that are open are slammed.
“Then you go eat, and they run out of a lot of things on the menu because they don’t have the means to have enough inventory at this time,” Mattina said.
Labor availability is no problem. Mattina said so many people were left unemployed at casinos and other bars that he expects no difficulty having adequate numbers of workers.
“We called the people we had working here before to give them an opportunity to come back,” Mattina said. “We have had no problems. Of course, we are probably going to need some more help because hopefully more people are going to come in. And since they have lifted curfew, that is going to help a whole lot.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.