Three years ago, a casino looking to create more employee parking offered to buy James Burnett’s home in a neighborhood of long, narrow tin-roofed houses that is a cherished link to this Gulf Coast city’s blue-collar roots.
Burnett turned the casino down. But now that his home of 32 years and many others like it have been destroyed, Burnett expects another offer.
Katrina demolished everything from the century-old shotgun shacks first populated by fishermen and cannery workers, to the coastal Greek-revival mansions, both of which kept Biloxi rooted in its past even after barge casinos and their companion hotels arrived in the 1990s.
Now some folks here fear that Katrina will force historic preservation efforts to take a back seat to the new Biloxi, including the need to get the all-important casino industry, which employs 14,000, back on its feet.
“One of the things that’s so devastating about this storm is Biloxi was really being restored — from the really grand, public historic buildings to the smallest vernacular cottages,” said Lolly Barnes, the city’s former historic administrator.
Before Katrina struck, visitors saw a city with a uniquely split personality: The neon, slot-machine glitz of the gambling halls dominated the waterfront, while white-columned, antebellum mansions sat directly opposite underneath ancient oak trees.
Biloxi officials estimate Katrina demolished at least 5,000 homes and buildings — or 20 percent of the city. They expect that number to grow as building inspectors determine how many buildings that remained standing are no longer structurally sound.
Barnes is worried about how strictly the city will enforce its historic neighborhood guidelines to ensure the architecture of new homes doesn’t clash with their surviving historic neighbors.
“People are in so much pain right now, and it’s going to be very difficult to tell them ‘no’ when it comes to their property,” Barnes said. “Collectively, they may want their historic neighborhood. But individually, they might want vinyl siding.”
With work crews just beginning to haul away debris and rescue units still searching for the dead, no one knows how the city of 55,000 will be transformed.
But even before Katrina, condo developers had already set their sights on the Mississippi coast: Five-hundred units were under construction when the storm hit, and 3,100 more proposed units were awaiting building permits, said Vincent Creel, spokesman for Mayor A.J. Holloway.
“A whole new market, people who had been looking at Florida to retire, were going to come here to escape the hurricanes,” Creel said. “We think people are going to be buying land now because they think they’re going to get it cheap and can build from scratch.”
Burnett, a 54-year-old construction worker, said he is determined to stay put and rebuild — no matter what forces are at work.