Eighteen months ago, Creda Stewart was enjoying her eighth year as director of public information for arguably the world’s most successful Indian tribe — the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians — while her husband, Dick Stewart, was director of resort operations for the tribe’s flourishing Pearl River Resort.
The mother of four was happy about her youngest child nearing completion of college and an upcoming family wedding, and the Stewarts were mulling retirement options.
“We were settled, we were happy,” Creda said. “Then the tribe chose to release many of their gaming executives last December (2004) and go a different way with the resort, and Dick was one of those released.”
The Stewarts decided to return to their Mississippi Gulf Coast home on the Biloxi Back Bay they had bought in 1993, when they moved from Nevada, where Dick was known as a “revenue driver” for gaming companies. Choctaw Chief Phillip Martin had recruited Dick to head marketing for the tribe’s gaming operations and Creda for the tribe’s spokesperson. The oldest of six children born to a full-blooded Cherokee father and part Mission Indian and French mother, both from Oklahoma, Creda was a good fit for the Choctaw organization.
“We bought an historic home on 40 acres north of town (in Philadelphia) and held onto our house in Biloxi as a getaway place when we wanted to be near the water, with the idea of later using it as a retirement home,” she said. “Dick was very excited about moving into another sphere of gaming with the Indians.”
The Stewarts were also instrumental in marketing events to draw tourists to the area. They helped hatch “Cruisin’ the Coast,” which began in 1996 and is now the state’s biggest special event. Car enthusiasts from over 37 states and Canada drive to the Mississippi Gulf Coast once a year to showcase and to cruise a variety of antique, classic and hot rod automobiles at designated stops along the coast in Ocean Springs, Biloxi, D’Iberville, Gulfport, Long Beach, Bay St. Louis, Waveland and Grand Casino Gulfport.
Just months after the tribe restructured its gaming operation last year, the Mississippi-based Isle of Capri Corporation hired Dick as vice president of property marketing, in charge of supervising 15 casino marketing departments. The Stewarts sold their Philadelphia home in July, and the plan called for Creda to commute to Philadelphia from Biloxi until her final day of work September 1.
“But like many other people down here, I had a life interruption on August 29,” she said. “We had just finished up months of renovation on the house. In fact, we were putting the final details on some stains for brand new doors on Saturday, August 27. We got to enjoy them for two days.”
Packing only flip-flops, shorts, jeans and T-shirts, and the 11-year-old family pet, a red Australian cattle heeler named Lightning, the Stewarts evacuated north to seek refuge from Hurricane Katrina, staying with friends in Philadelphia. On impulse, Creda stuffed family passports, deeds and insurance information in her sewing bag. “Thank goodness I did that,” she said.
For 48 hours, the Stewarts didn’t know the fate of their home. Then their oldest son, who works for Applied Geo Technologies at the Stennis Space Center, made his way to the site of the family home and discovered it had been totally destroyed.
“Unfortunately, my gut feeling was correct,” she recalled. “We really had a beautiful place, with two stories and gardens and a guest house, and it’s all gone. When you first realize you’ve lost everything, it’s so tough. The great hand of God just swept away a portion of Mississippi.”
The Isle of Capri moved the Stewarts temporarily to a property in Bossier City, La. To distract her from her own personal losses, Creda put her crisis management training into action.
“It was good to take one step at a time and keep busy,” she confided. “The first task was to help the Isle find the 1,500+ employees from the Biloxi property to make sure they were safe, and to communicate to them the company would continue their pay. I called Jack Garner at The Ramey Agency and asked for his help because all I had was my Palm (Pilot). He helped us get out the message, which was the most important thing at that point.”
While the Stewarts were battling with their insurance company over claims for wind and water damage to their home, the Isle of Capri was assessing damage to its Gulf Coast properties and decided to relocate its corporate headquarters to St. Louis, Mo. So while the Stewarts were waiting for a FEMA trailer to be delivered to their house site, which arrived in January — they had already bounced around from the temporary site in southern Louisiana to an RV park on Highway 90 — the couple realized they would need to relocate once more.
“I was born in Fort Scott, Kan., and lived all over the world as a military child, so moving to St. Louis is close to coming full circle,” said Creda, who was educated at California universities and abroad in Wales, and worked in Washington, D.C., for several years.
Before the Stewarts could close on a house in Missouri, Creda had to overcome another obstacle: securing homeowner’s insurance.
“When I called the first insurance agent about this new home we bought, he wanted to write us a policy,” she said. “Then he called back and said he was sorry, he could insure our cars but not our home. I knew we had impeccable credit. He said the problem was that we’d had insurance claims on our home down here, the latest Aug. 29! Because we had marks against our insurance, they couldn’t write us a policy. We were able to find another insurance company through the relocation group, but it wasn’t easy.”
Stewart, who served for four years on the Governor’s Commission on Physical Fitness and Sports, said she cannot emphasize enough “how much we’ll miss Mississippi.”
“There’s something special about Mississippians, and their resiliency,” she said. “We’re only two of 100,000 people who were displaced because of the storm. I can’t say enough about the City of Biloxi, who quickly brought in crews to clean up the debris and trim wind-damaged trees. We’re seeing improvement every day, which is so important.”
Not long ago, Choctaw Chief Phillip Martin challenged business leaders to consider that Mississippi is the last true economic frontier.
“I think Mississippi has had a little bit of a bump, but the future holds some great opportunities to fix some issues and ill planning,” she said. “The Legislature already did that when they changed the requirement from water-based to land-based casinos on the coast. Everything will move forward better for all Mississippians and that’s a pretty good thing. Being able to make a little bit of a difference has been fun.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.