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Gulf Islands National Seashore reopens to visitors

‘People need the islands now more than ever’

The Gulf Islands National Seashore (GINS), a string of barriers islands stretching from Cat Island in western Mississippi to Santa Rosa Island in Florida, has long been one of the top tourist attractions in the region.

But during an 11-month period between September 2004 and September 2005, GINS experienced severe damages from four hurricanes and two tropical storms.

“That was a series of events unprecedented in history,” said Gail Bishop, chief of interpretation and education at GINS. “The seashore lost its ability to provide services to the public that make GINS the most visited national seashore in the nation, and the ninth most visited of any national park. Visitation dropped from five million in 2003 to one million in 2005. A lot of that visitation drop was in our Florida District where Hurricane Ivan hit in September of 2004. We were going strong in Mississippi until Katrina.”

In the nearly six months since Katrina, major efforts have been made to clean up the Mississippi islands that are popular destinations for fishing, swimming, beach combing, camping and nature watching. The pier and boardwalk at East Ship Island have been repaired, and that island reopened to the public February 2. Plans are for the Ship Island Ferry to resume service this spring, possibly on Easter weekend.

The historic Civil War era Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island survived, but is closed to the public while damage is repaired. The massive fort fared better than other structures on the island. The restrooms, showers, picnic shelter and concession buildings were wiped away, as was the ranger station on Horn Island.

Much of the boardwalk and pier at Ship Island was underwater during the worst of the storm. While there was damage, the boardwalk was 70% intact. Both the ferry docking facilities and the boardwalk across the islands to the Gulf of Mexico beaches have been repaired. All of the islands are now open to visitors, but there are no restrooms, shade cabanas or water available at East Ship Island as in the past.

“People just need to be prepared to be self sufficient,” Bishop said. “They must bring plenty of water and food, sunscreen, and some way to get out of the sun like a beach umbrella. They should wear shoes on the beach and in the water because of the potential for stepping on debris. People have to bring their own trash out and can help the park by bringing a little extra trash out with them.”

Park service crews have made remarkable progress cleaning up all the islands in Mississippi, Bishop said. Right after the storm there was a lot of debris from the storm piled high on the beaches.

“When you lose structures, there is timber everywhere,” she said.

The islands had a lot of erosion, and many of the dunes were flattered or reduced significantly. The salt water harmed some of the island vegetation, especially pine trees. Many of the pine trees have a scorched brown look, and only time will tell if they will make it.

“We know from our experience with Hurricane Ivan in Florida that most of the pine trees are probably dead,” Bishop said. “Other plants will probably do just fine. We have noticed that sea oats are starting to come back.”

The islands are still very scenic, and the hit from the hurricane isn’t expected to dissuade people from visiting.

“I think if people have the opportunity to take a trip out to the island, it is a great way to get away,” Bishop said.
“People are going to need the islands more than ever,” said Louis Skrmetta, captain of the Ship Island Ferry. “Gulf Island National Seashore, including Ship Island and Fort Massachusetts, is one of the few things we have right now to bring visitors to the local area. And not just visitors use it, but local and regional people use the National Park.”

Since the Coast has a dearth of hotel rooms at present, Skrmetta expects most people going out to the islands will be day trippers from places like Hattiesburg and Jackson in state, and Covington, Mandeville and Madisonville in Louisiana.

“Those places have really grown in population and they use the Gulf Coast for day trips,” Skrmetta said. “They come down and go back the same day, so they don’t need hotels. So there are plenty of people who are going to be using the Seashore, including the locals. There is going to be demand for it. Naturally the number of people using the ferry service is going to be way down. But we plan on moving forward with our service.”

One factor that may attract more ferry riders is that with fuel so expensive, people who use their own small boats for fishing or visiting the islands might find it cheaper to buy a ticket on the ferry. Outboard motors on a boat can burn 20 gallons of gas per hour or more.

“That’s a lot of money to go out fishing or running around the islands when they can hop on our boat, which is still affordable,” Skrmetta said. “West Ship Island is still intact. The beaches are there. The islands offer everything they offered before the hurricane.”

Hinging on U.S. Park Service approval, Skrmetta hopes the ferry will start operating on Easter weekend in mid April. That is about six weeks later than the usual start the first weekend of March.

The Ship Island Ferry has been getting lots of calls from school and church groups that want to plan their trips to the island. There will be less frequent departures than in the past due to reduced ridership. When the schedule is finalized, it will be available at www.msshipisland.com or by calling 1-866-GO-MS-Fun.

Visitors to the islands this season won’t have the amenities of the past. The restrooms, picnic areas with shade, and snack bar are all gone. Skrmetta said they are talking about keeping one of the ferry boats tied to the dock so visitors will have restrooms and a snack bar. Portable restrooms are also being considered, along with temporary trailers for concessions.

“We will possibility put up a big shade shelter on the Gulf beach and also some covered picnic tables to get us through the summer until permanent facilities are replaced out there,” Skrmetta said. “We will also still have beach umbrella rentals. It is going to be a challenge because shade is critical. We must have shade for the visiting public out there. We also must have drinking water and restrooms.”

The Gulfport Harbor where the ferries dock to pick up passengers was destroyed, but the ferries survived at a hurricane mooring in North Gulfport.

“We rode out the hurricane with all the boats rafted together,” Skrmetta said. “While the Gulfport Harbor was destroyed, we have rebuilt our dock there. It is intact and we’re ready to come back to Gulfport any day. We replaced our ticket office with a temporary office trailer, and we have cleaned up and restored the area around the dock. We have it set up and are ready to receive visitors. We are just waiting on permits from the City of Gulfport to turn the power on.”

About 80% of the debris from docks and piers in the harbor has been cleaned up, and the FEMA contractors who have been storing their equipment at Jones Park are expected to leave soon. At a recent Downtown Gulfport Association meeting, there was a recommendation to get the harbor cleaned up so tourists and residents alike could come back to the harbor just to enjoy the water.

Another Coast business that provides trips to enjoy the Mississippi Sound and barrier islands is the historic Biloxi Schooners operated by the Seafood Industry Museum in Biloxi. The museum itself on Point Cadet was destroyed, but the schooners resumed passenger service from their dock behind the Isle of Capri at the Point Cadet Marina. Unfortunately, a new pier and docking facility for the schooners under construction on the beach before Katrina was destroyed.

Brandon Boudreax, captain of the schooners, said they are available for charters upon request. The public is also invited for sailing expeditions that leave each Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. The cost is $25 for adults and $10 for children for a 2.5-hour cruise. The Glenn L. Swetman and Mike Sekul are also available for charters either along the Coast or to the barrier islands. For more information or reservations, call 228-435-6320.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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