RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Necessary recovery, in all its new tints, leaves a taste for the way it was

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

There is a frame around the Katrina high-water mark over the mantel inside Mary Mahoney’s, the venerable restaurant in an old French house that’s survived war, hurricanes, oil spills and casinos.
As fresh fish is served up by candlelight to well-dressed, chattering denizens, you have to marvel at coastal survival. The Mississippi Coast revival is remarkable – that’s the general assessment, and a correct one.
Still, as I walk the beachfront streets of old Biloxi, I miss things. I know I am being selfish, longing for old things instead of celebrating the new. But there are gaps in the smile of the shoreline.
Some of my favorite places have been gone a lot longer than five years; a casino, not a hurricane, took out my all-time favorite restaurant, Fisherman’s Wharf.
And I’m not even sure what happened to certain other cherished sights. Was it wind, water, progress or old age that wiped out the old house with the palm tree growing through its front steps? It’s gone. The park where my niece first saw the ocean. Gone. The shell shop with the tacky but wonderful souvenirs. Gone.
So many landmarks went out with the tidal surge that gave the world a proper name for natural disaster and manmade calamity: Katrina. Such a musical name, forever tainted.
I pass brick walks leading nowhere, chimneys standing alone, empty lots, more empty lots. There are more amp”For Saleamp” signs than I’ve ever seen, and high-rises where shaded single-family dwellings used to be, condos that look more like Florida than Mississippi. Some casinos have moved from the sea to the shore, an evolutionary crawl hastened by the storm.
But the sand is whiter than usual. And you can get better views of the calm blue Sound. Considering the original devastation, the coast looks chastened but proud.
The return was as sure as the tides. Waterfront is made to be used. We all are drawn to the shoreline. As Jacques Cousteau said, amp”The greatest resource of the ocean is not material but the boundless spring of inspiration and well-being we gain from her.amp”
Some things deserve to be rebuilt again and again if necessary.
In nearby Pass Christian, the Episcopal Church has risen to new heights – flood-proof ones. In Bay St. Louis, the library that temporarily moved to a trailer donated by Bill Gates is back in an improved permanent site. The children’s section alone is something for the books. A puppet theater is at one end. Over Jack’s beanstalk a giant hand reaches through clouds and the ceiling. In all the coastal towns there are more fresh paint jobs and new roofs than you can imagine.
I consider myself optimistic by nature. I try to avoid dwelling in the past. I admire that Coast residents have regrouped and remained, and so many have. To someone who didn’t know it before, the necessary facelift would look charming and quite natural.
And yet, looking at the Harvest Moon over Mississippi Sound is not as romantic as once it was to me. There is a sadness now, an association with loss and longing that this beach did not have before. I miss the way it was.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.

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