URBAN RENEWAL

Biloxi, Alive and Thriving

While this Mississippi city will never forget Hurricane Katrina, its residents are ready to embrace a bright, shiny future.

The Beach Boulevard strip (Chris Granger)

Flip through a rack of postcards in any Biloxi, Miss., gift shop, and along with images of magnolia trees and sunsets, you're likely to find a few satellite shots of Hurricane Katrina looming over the Gulf Coast. "Why not?" asks a store clerk downtown. "We lived it."

While New Orleans has caught most of the nation's attention, Biloxi has also been busy getting back on its feet. The city has been pumping state and federal reconstruction funds into tourism infrastructure and aggressively encouraging private development. It seems to be working: The Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport now has more direct flights than it did three years ago, before Katrina.

Highway 90 shoots directly to the center of town, passing miles of white-sand beaches and the cast-metal Biloxi lighthouse. The Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum was destroyed in the hurricane, but a new building near the lighthouse is under way. In the meantime, the museum's pair of 65-foot replica oyster schooners, which survived the storm, are once again offering afternoon and sunset cruises. The original ships sailed the waters off Biloxi in the early 1900s, earning the city a reputation as the shrimp and oyster capital of the world.

Shrimp is still plentiful today, especially in the gumbo served (and sold by the gallon) at Mary Mahoney's Old French House. "We got hammered by Katrina," says owner Bob Mahoney, son of the late Mary. "Our dining room was flooded with five feet of water." That didn't stop the popular restaurant (John Grisham and Denzel Washington are among its fans) from reopening within three months. The walls are again packed with antique oil paintings and vintage snapshots, and the $14 lunch special still comes with Mary's bread pudding in rum sauce.

Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, whose wife grew up in Gulfport, Miss., has a new restaurant at the Island View Casino Resort. Just about everything on the Creole-inspired menu at Emeril's Gulf Coast Fish House is from the region, including the crispy Gulf oysters and the quail stuffed with boudin. The dining room has views of Cat Island and Ship Island, but the best seats might be the ones inside the 4,000-bottle wine tower.

Across from Mary Mahoney's looms one of the city's newest additions: the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi, which was originally set to debut the day the hurricane hit. With its metallic purple windows and towering guitar sign, the Hard Rock joins several new and rebuilt casino hotels on Beach Boulevard. Before Katrina, state law required casinos to operate offshore on barges; as a result, all 13 of Biloxi's casinos were severely damaged. The law now allows casinos to be on land (as long as they're within 800 feet of the shore), which has led to a boom in development. The 32-story Beau Rivage Resort & Casino was one of the first to reopen, with a new golf course that weaves through pecan orchards.

The city has also spiffed up a few museums post-Katrina. The Beauvoir Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and Home reopens in June, on the 200th anniversary of the Confederate president's birth. Over the past two years, the museum's antebellum mansion has been restored and furnished with period pieces. The library, Hayes Cottage (where Davis once hosted Oscar Wilde), and barracks are next on the list.

A five-minute drive east is the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, which was in the middle of a $16 million redesign by Frank Gehry when Katrina dropped a casino barge onto the building, forcing contractors to start over. In December, the museum finally completed the first phase of the project with the unveiling of the George Ohr Pavilion. The tulip-like gallery, composed of four interconnected metal pods, will display hundreds of ceramic sculptures by the late George E. Ohr, the self-proclaimed Mad Potter of Biloxi. "When Gehry toured our grounds, he fell in love with the live oaks and wanted to create a museum that 'dances with the trees,'" says museum president Larry Clark.

In another sign of progress, the Biloxi Bay Bridge--connecting downtown Biloxi to the neighborhood of Ocean Springs--finally reopened in October. Ocean Springs is home to several live-music bars that are once again hopping. "Every day, I see the area coming back more and more," says Ronnie Hamilton, the manager of the Julep Room Lounge. Just last month, in fact, Hamilton got his first busload of blues-seeking visitors--as sure a sign as any that Biloxi is bouncing back.

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