Hurricane Katrina sent a 30-foot wall of water crashing into coastal Mississippi, and the small town of Waveland, Miss., near the Louisiana border, was one of the hardest-hit places. For 10 years now, its residents have struggled to rebuild in the face of multiple obstacles.
Standing on the second-floor balcony of Waveland City Hall, Mayor Mike Smith points out what used to be on Coleman Avenue, the main downtown thoroughfare: “There was a building right here on the corner, and then there was a drugstore and some shops on the right-hand side. …”
In all, there were 29 businesses on the street before Katrina; today there are just six. South of City Hall it’s largely empty lots, broken up only by “For Sale” signs.
Luckily, Waveland had another commercial district, away from the water, and the mayor says businesswise, the city’s doing OK.
“What we’re hurting at is our residents,” Smith says. “We had roughly 8,000 residents when Katrina hit, and we’re at about 6,400 now.”
Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed nearly every residence in Waveland, many of them inundated by the three-story-high storm surge. Other Mississippi coastal towns blossomed after the storm — Bay St. Louis, next door to Waveland, is bustling with new beachfront restaurants and businesses. But Waveland has struggled, because it was virtually flattened.
Mayor Smith blames the cost of flood insurance for the slow redevelopment. Federal requirements to rebuild at higher elevations are also a factor.
Kathy Pinn owned one of the businesses on Coleman Avenue. A decade ago, when she first arrived back in Waveland after Katrina and saw the devastation of Coleman Avenue and what little remained of her shop, she burst into tears.
Pinn reopened her gift shop in 2007, in the city’s other commercial area away from the beach. But the recession that took hold the following year walloped her business, and it closed in 2009. Pinn remained hopeful about coming back to Coleman Avenue, but then the BP oil spill happened.
“And a lot of people who were thinking about — that was about 4 1/2 years, about five, into the recovery — that just stopped a lot of growth that would have come in that point in time,” she says. “Just made everybody rethink it.”
Two years ago, Pinn and her husband moved to Illinois, where they have family.
LiLi Stahler Murphy served as an alderwoman in Waveland for eight of the past 10 years. She thinks the oil spill made a big difference in the trajectory of the city’s sluggish recovery.
“We had just opened our brand new fishing pier, and then the beach was closed for that whole summer,” Murphy says. “That, I thought, was going to be our real breakout summer. And that was rather disheartening and not our fault, but it is what it is, and it slowed us down a lot.”
Still, Waveland seems to be doing what it can to make itself attractive to potential businesses and residents. Mayor Smith says the city received about $300 million in federal funding and now has new public buildings and infrastructure — just about everything. Smith, who became mayor in December, wants to return Waveland to where it was before Katrina.
“And I don’t mean just in buildingwise,” he says. “But just in the attitude that people had. It was a very nice, relaxing place to live, and it’s been quite busy since then, but I want it to be like that again.”
Waveland will mark the 10th anniversary of the storm with a “hurricane homecoming” at its Ground Zero Museum — one of the post-Katrina occupants of Coleman Avenue.