How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
The rain sure reminded me of Katrina; it was like driving through a car wash. Fifteen years after the monster hurricane devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I sloshed my way South to celebrate another milestone in its recovery, the new Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport. I marveled at how much things have changed along Highway 49. Traffic lights have multiplied like rabbits and many of the medians have been cleared (helps with falling trees during hurricanes.) Civilization has moved slightly north since Katrina, too. The city of Wiggins’ population has grown. All the area along and north of Interstate 10 seems busier. There are still plenty of empty lots South of the railroad tracks – the line of demarcation for the storm surge in many places. As my son (my copilot for the trip) and I sat at a traffic light in Gulfport, I pictured all the destruction I had witnessed a decade and a half ago. I opened them again to see a green light and a new Coast.
One of the cartoons I did after Katrina showed the Gulf Coast running a marathon, not a sprint. When I drew it, toilets wouldn’t flush, debris lined the Coast and lives remained in tatters. Volunteers were swarming in, helping pick all the other agencies and government entities whose plans had been washed out into the Mississippi Sound. I knew the Coast would come back. But what would it look like?
On Friday, I got my answer.
Casinos are now on land (well, their barges were on lang after the storm but not on purpose), restaurants and businesses have come back. Roads and bridges have been repaired. Like I said, many homes, businesses and churches now are north of the railroad tracks. But fancy homes are now filling the long-empty lots. Even the Gulfport Library, which sat as a washed-out husk of a building for over a decade, is repaired. And right next to it, near where Highways 49 and 90 run into each other, sits The Mississippi Aquarium.
The $100 million Mississippi Aquarium (which broke ground in May of 2018 and is partially funded with BP oil-spill recovery money) contains one-million gallons of both salt and fresh water and sits on 5.8 acres — 10 different lots were cobbled together to make the site. According to their website, it contains “over 80,000 square feet of exhibits and connected by landscaped walkways with plantings representing all seven Physiographic Regions of Mississippi.” (Although I did not see any Kudzu).
So is it good? Yes. It is very good. My 13-year-old, who loves all things aquariums, enjoyed it as much as the ones in New Orleans, Atlanta and Gatlinburg. We were greeted by alligators, catfish, sharks, cownose rays and 200 other types of aquatic species. There were also numerous friendly and relieved staff members who are just thankful the opening day has arrived.
It is estimated that, as soon as the world gets back to some degree of post-COVID normalcy, it will generate $360 million a year in revenue for the businesses in the Gulfport area. Frankly, it’s a win for the whole Mississippi Gulf Coast.
My son and I listened as the politicians praised the new attraction. Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes became emotional when he was speaking about it. What mayor wouldn’t? It’s a shining new piece to the recovering Gulf Coast puzzle that will bring visitors and dollars to his city for years to come. Still, I thought about Katrina and the damage it had caused. I looked up at the facility and wondered if it was high enough to survive the next big storm surge that would roar ashore. My guess is that it will.
As we headed home, we drove past the spot where Jim Cantore stood in front of the Treasure Bay Casino pirate ship before the storm and ominously warned us to look around because things wouldn’t look the same again.
Cantore was right. They don’t look the same. But they look better than they did immediately after the storm and are getting better by the day. When I was helping clean off a lot in Waveland after the storm, I asked a fellow coworker how the Coast would ever recover. He smiled, pointed at the debris around us and said, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
The Mississippi Aquarium, a new jewel on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, is a major bite of that elephant.