Back to the beachfront
Trapani family keeps historic business afloat; now prepares to move back and re-build on their former lot on Beach Boulevard
Somebody was literally looking out for Trapani’s Eatery in Bay St. Louis Aug. 29, 2005 when a tornado spawned from Hurricane Katrina lashed out at the Gulf Coast town.
Owner Tony Trapani said the bustling restaurant had already weathered two previous hurricanes — Georges in 1998 and Ivan in 2004 — and he thought they would still have a restaurant when they returned — at least a walk-in freezer. While he and his wife evacuated to Destin, Fla., one neighborly eyewitness who stayed behind for the landfall watched as the tornado barreled down North Beach Boulevard, obliterating everything in its path, including Trapani’s Eatery.
When the Trapanis got back from Destin, all that was left of their business was a pile of bricks sitting in more than four feet of water. “We had 100 percent wind (insurance) coverage,” said Trapani. “That saved us. If it wasn’t for that eyewitness, I’d have been bankrupt two years ago.”
The southwestern tip of the Mississippi Gulf Coast was reduced to Third World standards in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. After National Guard units moved in to rescue survivors and stave off looting, the area soon took on the appearance of a war zone. Homes and businesses were destroyed all the way down to their concrete foundations while the furniture, clothes, family albums, cars and hundreds of other personal effects of residents were left tangled in trees or underwater.
Tony Trapani said he had fortunately installed French doors all around his home in Waveland, so when the hurricane roared ashore, a 10-foot storm surge flowed through their house without leveling it. “My house is the first house standing between the tracks and beach in Waveland,” Trapani said. “(It’s one of only) two that were still standing. Everything else was destroyed.”
The steak and seafood restaurant, which is famous for its fried green tomatoes, po’boys and pasta, was opened by Trapani and his wife, Jolynne, in 1994, the same year they were married. It has since moved into a mini-mall on U.S. 90 in Bay St. Louis, a suite of offices that Trapani gutted and converted into a stopgap for his business.
Trapani’s Eatery was closed for seven months after Hurricane Katrina while its owners weighed their options. “It really wasn’t that bad. It was not that big of a deal to me, to be honest,” Trapani said. “It happened to everybody, not just me. It’d be different if some lightning bolt had burned your place and you’re like, ‘Oh God, what did I do.’ Everybody felt bad but then everybody just kind of gets over it.”
Trapani said he and his neighbors and fellow small business owners realized that while what happened was terrible, they would have to live through it. “We know what’s good and what’s bad around here now,” Trapani said.
Trapani’s Eatery is the only beachfront restaurant that has been able to remain reopened post-Katrina. In spite of the new location, Trapani said he is ready to get back to his old place on the shore. Now that the beach roads in Bay St. Louis have been completed, he said he is two weeks away from beginning construction of a new two-story Trapani’s Eatery that will replace the mini-mall location sometime in 2011.
Business owners along the Mississippi Gulf Coast that weathered a monstrous hurricane and its devastating aftermath have had to weather additional storms in the five years since the disaster. Rising gas prices and unemployment combined with a crippling recession has kept tourists off the roads and out of the restaurants. Tourists are a commodity for the region, and if this year’s lagging summer is any economic indicator, it’s not a good one.
“When we first opened up, we were good for a long time,” Trapani said. “We had volunteer workers, people still picking up their houses or coming in town for the weekend to sort through their rubble,” That foot traffic soon dried up as FEMA trailers started to disappear and blue tarps came down from repaired roofs. The whole recovery show came to a screeching halt after the Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded off the Louisiana coast in April, leaving thousands of gallons of crude leaking into the Gulf of Mexico.
“We were still fishing, still using boats and enjoying stuff and then when that oil spill came through we’re like, ‘Oh boy, this is fun,’” Trapani said. He said the whole oil spill ordeal was “a big giant uncertainty” and much more damaging mentally than Hurricane Katrina, even though it never came ashore.
If another hurricane or similar disaster strikes Hancock County, Trapani’s Eatery will once again be faced with a decision to rebuild or retire. “No way would I go through this again,” Trapani said. “If another hurricane wipes out Trapani’s Eatery, I don’t think there’s gonna be another one — I promise you that.”
MORE ON … Trapani’s Eatery
City: Bay St. Louis
Year Opened: 1997
Reopened: March 2006
Key to Survival: “We’re here and making sure everything is still good. I have the same employees — the same cooks are cooking the same meals. I pay ‘em good. That’s why.”