Image: Boy eats at Way Up North in Mississippi Picnic in Central Park
Tina Fineberg / Ap
Robert McMullan, 3, of Darien, Conn., eats a slice of watermelon as he watches a watermelon seed spitting contest at the Way Up North in Mississippi Picnic in New York's Central Park on Saturday.
updated 6/10/2006 10:20:34 PM ET 2006-06-11T02:20:34

There were piles of catfish and hushpuppies in Central Park Saturday as hundreds of Mississippians celebrated their home state and encouraged Northeasterners to aid its recovery from Hurricane Katrina by paying the state a visit.

The 27th annual picnic in the park, established by a group of homesick Mississippians, added significance in light of the hurricane. Those invited to attend the watermelon seed-spitting contest and enjoy the food and live band included scores of Yankees who volunteered to help coastal communities rebuild after the storm.

“We have benefited so much from the literally tens of thousands of volunteers,” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told the crowd. “I’ve met people here who have been twice, three times.”

Diana Bramante, 21, of Bellmore, N.Y., said she traveled to coastal Mississippi twice this spring to work on the recovery effort with fellow students from Sacred Heart University, in Fairfield, Conn.

“We demolished a ruined house with crowbars. The whole house!” she said. “It was incredible. I’d go again tomorrow if I could.”

Mississippians who established the Central Park picnic in 1979 were looking for a way to get in touch with folks from back home, and maybe extoll its virtues to any New Yorkers who cared to listen.

It has been attended by every Mississippi governor since its founding, and over time the state began sending a delegation of officials who used it as an opportunity to promote tourism and economic development.

The South shall rise again
But state boosters who spent the days before the picnic meeting with newspaper and magazine editors in the nation’s media capital had a slightly different message than in years past: Despite the devastation from the storm, there still is life in Gulf Coast tourism.

“Our fishing boats are ready. Our golf courses are ready. Restaurants are open. And by August we are going to have close to 10,000 rooms back up again on the coast,” said Steve Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Before Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, there were 9,227 hotel rooms in Biloxi, Miss., a coastal city with a flourishing casino industry. The storm didn’t take them all, but it was close.

By late May, only 2,160 had reopened, according to the visitors bureau.

“We want people to know that we can accommodate them in every way that we used to,” said Elaine Stevens, a spokeswoman for the IP Hotel & Casino, which reopened its doors in December.

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