Ocean Springs and Gautier, Mississippi, sit on the outskirts of Jackson County, between Pascagoula and Biloxi, Mississippi, but these towns also sit directly on the waterfront of the Gulf of Mexico. Their position puts them in some of the most lovely back country scenery along the coast, but it also puts them in a precarious position for hurricane and storm activity. Hurricane Katrina was just such a storm, it wreaked havoc across the area.
The town of Ocean Springs is linked to Biloxi and Gautier by U.S. Route 90, an important thoroughfare that brings tourists and locals to the services and shops they depend on. Ocean Springs is known as the artistic heart of the area, with a thriving downtown area and semi-secluded beaches. Some of the homes near the water’s edge would sell in the millions of dollars, and the community thrives around its abundant sense of community.
Gautier sits a few miles east of Ocean Springs, and while the close in proximity, the town has not fared as well through the years. Many of the businesses reflect ideas that could have been, but have not come to fruition. A shopping mall that was built too big, and has yet to fill all of its stalls. A shopping center across the street that shows its age, and is populated by charity shops, second hand stores and a store that specializes in discontinued items. The people are proud of their heritage, though, maintaining a house, that was the residence of the town’s founder in the 1800’s, that sits open to the public as a monument to their origins.
These two coastal cities, while pleasant and charming in their own individual ways, were completely devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Initially winds in excess of 120 mph buffeted the two towns, tearing the roofs off of some houses. Other homes were destroyed by wind-blown debris. Then came the water. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reported that the estimated water level in Ocean Springs, Jackson County, MS, reached an estimated height of 20-22 feet above mean sea level.
Nearly all of the houses along the coastline were in danger, either from wind, storm surge, other flooding that occurred with the storm. Even houses that were built on pylons, or stilts, were threatened by the rising waters. One story even talks about a house in Gautier that had the floor of the elevated house washed out from underneath. Many houses along the coast were simply washed away, leaving just a foundation behind to mark their previous location.
If one point could hamper the recovery of the area would be the loss of the U.S. Route 90 bridge. This access point provided the main access to the cities of Ocean Springs and Gautier with the major sea ports and airport in Gulfport, as well as the population centers and casinos in Biloxi. To lose a bridge in this area was significant. The military personnel and commuters who work out of Gulfport, Biloxi and Keesler Air Force Base found themselves unable to reach their homes in a reasonable commute time.
With the loss of the bridge, commuters were forced to go north to Interstate 10, approximately 2-4 miles to the north, depending on the actual route taken. Military personnel assigned to Keesler AFB would then have to take Interstate 110 south to reach the base, which added a total of 20-30 minutes to their commute. As these personnel moved away, and new Airmen moved in to replace them, many, if not most, chose not to take the additional commute. En masse, they chose to live in the cities of Biloxi, D’Iberville and Gulfport rather than make a 45 minute commute to work. Jackson County and Ocean Springs officials knew that if their communities were to survive, then a new Route 90 bridge would have to be built.
In November of 2008, Oceans Springs and Biloxi opened a new Route 90 bridge. Where the old bridge was a standard, dated causeway-style bridge, the new bridge was designed from the ground up to welcome tourists and locals alike. The new bridge was designed principally to incorporate a heavy traffic load, so three lanes were included in each direction, which increased the traffic load of the bridge by 50%. Furthermore, the addition of a walking path on the side of the bridge is one of the most celebrated additions to the area.
The walking portion of the bridge meets up with Front Beach in Ocean Springs, and provides an outlet for walkers, joggers, bicyclists and tourists a picturesque walk across the Biloxi Bay. The opening of the bridge also opened up new revenue opportunities for the area. With the commute time from Gulf Park Estates, the principle housing estate in Ocean Springs, to Biloxi reduced from nearly an hour to just under 25 minutes, residents have begun flocking to the area. Since the opening, housing turnover is on the rise, but a full recovery of the market has been hampered by the housing market crash of 2008.
Five years after the storm, some other highlights abound. Oceans Springs has opened its arms to the artistic side and strives to be the cultural heart of the Gulf Coast. The Chamber of Commerce has taken bold steps to establish a sense of community while also bringing in tourists and visitors. The Chamber holds no less than 18 events throughout the year, but one in particular stands out as a crowd pleaser, and that is the Art Walk in September. During the event, thousands of tourists and shoppers walk the approximately 1.5-2 miles of shops near downtown, and local artisans sell their wares to the passersby. If any event signifies the revival of a community after the storm, this event is the one.
Five years after Hurricane Katrina, there are still some issues. The local water company, TESI, continues to charge residents for Hurricane Katrina wastewater removal, but residents do not often complain about the charges. The resurgence of the local art scene and the healthy push from bridge-walkers shows the resilience of the Oceans Springs and Gautier residents. As things continue to return to normalcy, Ocean Springs continues to push the boundaries, like most recently they added brick crosswalks for pedestrians. Continued beautification projects will pay dividends in this community, and show that these folks know that recovering from the hurricane is more than just returning to the way it was, but also moving beyond and into the future.