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The cottage that was formerly the home of folk artist Alice Moseley is typical of the Victorian houses that dominate the city's Old Town.

JACK WEATHERLY: Healing on the coast — A sunny mortality

JACK WEATHERLY

JACK WEATHERLY

BAY ST. LOUIS – We sit on the porch of our rental cottage two blocks from the Gulf. Palmettos embrace the screened enclosure with their large fronds resembling the human hand. Hence their name.

It’s hard not to think we’re in paradise. Or should I say paradise regained?

The lane is always quiet, but more so in the morning, disturbed only by someone on foot walking for the simple pleasure and health of it.

The physical evidence of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Mississippi mainland on Aug. 29, 2005, is by and large gone. Katrina dug in her claws deeply and raked them from just west of here to Mobile.

The damage in Bay St. Louis these days is noticeable primarily for its invisibility – for-sale signs on vacant lot after vacant lot. The day before Katrina, there were 60 homes, stylish and historical, along Beach Boulevard. The next day, 41 were gone with the monster surge.

Likewise, the damage left by the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig’s four-month oil hemorrhage of millions of gallons of crude oil that started in April 2010 about 40 miles offshore is mostly invisible, though it seems to manifest itself from time to time.

Yes, the sea can heal itself, given half a chance. Which it needs, given man’s ability to do it harm, even though it has been associated with healing from time immemorial.

The sea  may get its revenge. It is rising up, literally, in what some see as its reaction to our profligate energy-consuming ways.

But these fatalistic thoughts are muted in the evenings when my wife and I sip Chardonnay and listen to jazz and blues on WWOZ broadcasting from New Orleans, or benefit from the shade of an ancient live oak sheltering us from the harsh afternoon sun.  A sense of history and permanence prevails.

Indeed, it is tempting to say these days: Paradise regained. The townspeople who lived through the devastation don’t go out of their way to dispute that naiveté (Regained? By the hardest.) It is, in part, good for business.

But it is also part of what I sense as a sunny mortality about this town.

Katrina was a Bitch, but Camille was not exactly a Belle in 1969.  She cut Ship Island in half before wreaking havoc on the mainland.

Camille’s surge covered Washington Street in Old Town Bay St. Louis with several inches of water. Katrina left the street under 12 to 15 feet of dark, roiled water.

Just as the residents of New Orleans are reassured by the rebuilding of the levees to keep the waters of the Mississippi and Lake Ponchartrain out of that city, where 1,500 drowned, longtime resident Charles Gray is confident that the new sea wall will keep the Gulf waters out of Bay St. Louis. Gray, executive director of the Hancock County Historical Society, said the wall is by far the best of three dating to the early 20th century, each built after a major hurricane.

The 12-foot wall overwhelmed by Katrina was erected in the early 1920s. The new one, built in stadium-step design, rises 21 feet above sea level, the height of the “bluff” on which the town sits — and eight miles long.

BP recently announced it will give Mississippi $2.2 billion, not including all personal and business and legal and cleanup costs that have reached $54 billion for the coastal region that also includes Alabama, Louisiana, Florida and Texas.

A $22 million municipal harbor and marina funded by the federal and state governments opened in the summer of 2014 and sticks its chin beyond the new seawall into the Gulf.

Already a second breakwater is being discussed, said harbor master Chuck Fortin. The first one is designed to withstand a category 3 hurricane, such as Katrina. But nothing could stop a surge along the lines of the 2005 storm, he said.

• • •

In our car we creep down one of the lanes of the town, taking in its architecture, predominantly Victorian cottages. A  woman in a pickup pulls up beside us. Can she help us find our way? Are we lost? she asks. Only if we go too fast, I say to myself. She moved here from New Orleans 10 years earlier, before Katrina. “I wouldn’t go back,” she says.

The recovery of New Orleans is slow, still awaiting volunteerism and government to finish the job.

It has the bitter aftertaste of  politics. Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was convicted in 2014 of taking bribes for post-Katrina reconstruction. He was carrying on the Louisiana tradition of blatant corruption. He was merely the latest in the long line that includes the Longs, Huey, “the Kingfish,” and Uncle Earl; and Edwin “Silver Fox” Edwards, governor for four terms, defendant in four criminal trials, loser in one, and likewise a loser in the November 2014 contest for Louisiana’s sixth congressional district.

The recovery in Bay St. Louis was kinder, gentler, as another politician might say.

This is a tourist town, but it has not succumbed to the attack of the 50-foot inflated shark, not yet anyway. Our visit came in the wake of the annual feeding frenzy and automotive fetishes of  thousands of sexagenarians “cruising” the Mississippi coast the first week of October in their custom hotrods and “classics.”   Promoters expect the October 2015 event to once again eclipse the pre-Katrina record.

Rampant tourism can take its toll if there is insufficient history as an antidote. New Orleans could be wrecked six more times, but it will never lose its identity.

Bay St. Louis has its share of history, dating, in fact, to the late 17th century when explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville established it for France, before New Orleans was founded.

Local history is in good hands. It is kept in the records of the Hancock County Historical Society’s headquarters, the 1896 cottage called the Kate Lobrano House.

Photos and plats of all houses in the county are archived there. Miraculously, while many structures were destroyed, their history was not.

“I don’t think we lost a single document, though some of them needed ironing, I can tell you,”  says Gray, executive editor of the society.

Before Katrina, 728 structures in Bay St. Louis were on the National Register of Historic Places, Gray notes. More than half are gone.

Bay St. Louis is in Hancock County, one of three of Mississippi’s coastal counties whose devastation was so great that a stunned Haley Barbour, then governor, uttered the day after the storm: “I can only imagine this is what Hiroshima looked like.”

The residences have almost a human quality for Gray (“Look at that poor thing,” he says of a photo of a damaged house), none more so than his own Beachwood Hall.

He fled the storm and took shelter inland in a FEMA trailer, where he parked his near-mint 1964 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud 3, eventually making it to his hometown of Waynesboro, two counties from the coast.

It took him 10 days of maneuvering the fractured highway systems to get back to Bay St. Louis.

When he returned, his worst fears were realized.  Beachwood Hall had been destroyed. All that was left after the frightful surge was “the doorstep.”

The wave had splintered the circa 1840 house and carried its pieces to Lord-knows-where.

It had been the home of Gray and his life partner, Jim Plauche, for 18 years.

Gray had no flood insurance because he was advised “time and time again” that there was no geological evidence that a wave had ever reached the height of his home site.  “Even Camille didn’t. Whether or not the house  was  blown away by wind an hour or two before nobody was ever able to prove.”

Farther inland in south Mississippi the wind-versus-water dispute seemed to be a settled matter until a recent ruling by the U.S. 5th Circuit court of appeals.

That opened the door to the possibility of a widespread review of thousands of claims against State Farm Fire and Casualty in which the insurer paid out of the National Flood Insurance Program rather than out if its own pocket for wind damage.

Recovery of a personal nature is a different category altogether.

Gray had passed by a pile of debris daily until something caught his eye. It was the overturned family silver chest, with contents inside.

Then someone found a chest with something much more valuable to Charles. It was an oak box containing Jim’s ashes.

Gray says, in a line worthy of Tennessee Williams, he “went to party in New Orleans  and stayed 43 years.”

He and Jim ran Corrine Dunbar’s, one of the city’s world-class restaurants, from 1956 till 1987, the year before Jim was taken sick with cancer.

Its eponymous founder had turned her Garden District home into a restaurant after her husband lost his business during the Depression. She kept the appearance, if not the pretense, of having guests in for dinner. Everyone arrived at the same time, discreetly depositing their money as they entered. Everyone’s meal was the same, because, well, they were guests, on whose kindness Corrine relied.  Blanche DuBois with a head for business.

Jim was given a short time to live. A long cruise was suggested. They booked passage on what would be the first of 29 such cruises. And while they ultimately did not have curative powers, Jim lived far longer than the doctors had expected. He died in 2002.

• • •

We meet Capt. Kenny Shiyou (rhymes with bayou, he says) in the dark at his dock. We board his 24-foot Seahunt we had chartered and slowly cruise past shrimp boats whose riggings begin to emerge from the gloom like moss-draped live oaks.

Of the sunrise, he says dryly: “That’s something I gotta look at every day.”

Out in the Mississippi Sound, two dolphins, man’s best friend in the sea, ride alongside us. “That’s something else I gotta look at.”

Yet since that time, scientific evidence has surfaced to suggest that that man is not reciprocating with the dolphin.

A report issued May 22 by the North American Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration linked an abnormal number of dolphin deaths with the Deepwater Horizon spill.

State and federal governments gave a clean bill of health for the seafood industry less than a year after the eruption.

We have bought Louisiana fishing licenses, just in case our pursuit of fish takes us in that direction, which it did.

Marshlands spread out beyond the end of the Mississippi River Delta like a lace isosceles triangle, a freehand fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. This is the true delta, not the half-moons facing each other far upstream from the east and west sides of the river in Mississippi and Arkansas.

The “lace” is fraying, like curtains in an ancient house. Hurricanes and a network of oil pipelines have taken their toll on Louisiana below the presumably now-secure New Orleans. The loss of the land, base for generations of fishermen, seemingly is inexorable despite continuing efforts to slake the Gulf’s ravenous appetite for land.

The marshlands are prime spots for the prized redfish, which is a bait to attract tourists.

The captain stays in radio contact with others in his group as they advise one another of where they are and whether there’s any action.

They use code words, such as “Mikies” and “Wilsons,”  to protect hot spots.

Shore Thing Fishing Charters captains are far from alone out here. Competitors are listening in. Others, too. We pick up conversations of Vietnamese shrimpers.

If the conditions are signs, we are going to be in for a lucky day. The water is calm, the temperature is perfect and there is not a cloud in the October sky

Kenny pulls up to within casting distance of the marsh grass. The trout are hitting.  They are small, but some are keepers.

After a while, the captain disdainfully says: “This is like perch fishing. Let’s go get some big reds.”

His 24-footer with its 300-horsepower Yamaha outboard gets from fishing spot A to fishing spot B in a hurry.

Kenny shows us how it’s done. He casts the live-shrimp bait close to the grass, then hands the rig to Jill.

Boom! A big hit. Kenny is a good coach – knowledgeable and patient: “Keep that right arm cocked and on your hip. Pull up and crank when you lower the rod.”

She brings in a nice redfish, and Kenny nets it, takes the hook out and shows her how to hold it by hooking her thumb into its mouth and takes an atta-girl photo.

Then she lands another redfish.

I’m casting away, but nothing.

Then I hook a big one. And another, maybe the biggest yet.

After we play that spot out, he takes us farther out into the Mississippi Sound, nearly 20 miles out, but not into the blue water.

Prehistoric-looking triple-tails, the Welterweight Champion of the Sound, gravitate to the white PVC pipes sticking out in the water. We cruise by the pipes and Kenny somehow spots a triple-tail.

He hooks it and hands the rig to me. This is some fish.

And a couple more.

Kenny hooks ’em and I bring ’em in. We all agree that they are too much for Jill to handle.

End of day, we are just one short of the redfish limit.

Another pipe shows up as we head back to shore. How about a go at one more tripletail. It turns out to be the biggest of the day.  After landing it, I really didn’t want to bring in another. I had reached my limit.

Back at the dock, Kenny cleans and filets our catch. We join in the camaraderie with another skipper and his guests.

What’s saltwater fishing without a Hemingway story. I tell one about  the famous writer dining at a swell restaurant (Corrine Dunbar’s) in New Orleans. A nice guy, he would turn over his brandy glasses on the bar and call them dead soldiers.

Yeah, Kenny says, he knows what I’m talking about. Ole boys pitch their empty beer cans in the bed of their pickups as they drive the backroads. They call ’em dead soldiers, too.

I didn’t take it as Cajun one-upsmanship. Just life along the coast. Who knows, maybe Hemingway picked it up from fishermen in Key West. The big net that trawls the globe for information is full of chatter about possible origins.

We took our ice chest packed with redfish, tripletails and trout back to the cottage. The next evening we grilled and ate two redfish fillets –each more than twice the size of a man’s outstretched hand. We decided they were the best poisson we’d ever tasted.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.

About Jack Weatherly

2 comments

  1. Nice story, Jack. Thanks.

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