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BUCKLE UP

KENNY SEAY HAS a great view of the Gulf of Mexico, thanks to Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, the storm wiped out much of Mississippi’s coast, including four houses that stood between Kenny and the beach in Pascagoula. Now he can sit on his back patio and watch the seagulls playing above the shore, but he sure as heck misses his neighbors, even those who blocked his view. It’s like this all up and down the coast five years later — almost no homes for half a mile inland, just stumps of oak trees and stumps of concrete slabs.

My mom grew up in Pascagoula during World War II. In those days, there were gun emplacements on the beach to protect against enemy submarines. Now the biggest threat is Mother Nature, and there is no defense. Kenny, my mom’s oldest friend, never left Pascagoula — not even for Katrina. At age 79, after staying behind to sandbag his home, he was forced to ride out the storm, in the safety of his home two blocks off the beach. He was trying to secure his front doors with a coat hanger when Katrina ripped them out of his hands. As he watched, a neighbor’s house floated into his front yard. When Kenny’s house started shaking, he considered swimming to a tree for safety.

Wisely, he didn’t. His two-story house stood, but his first-floor exterior wall, the one facing south to the water, was gone as was the brick veneer on the remaining three walls. His wife’s stainless steel refrigerator floated away, along with cherished furniture and scrapbooks. Kenny did find his fence posts several blocks away. He dragged them home himself (“like Jesus carrying the cross,” he says). It took him three years to clear the lots between him and the Gulf. Now 84, he still mows the lots, his pasture of pleasure and pain. Only two neighbors out of 20 or 30 — he’s lost count of how many have left — have rebuilt. Some are trying to sell, but it’s hopeless. The insurance rates are high, impossibly high, for retirees and ordinary folks. “I can no longer picture the houses there,” says Kenny’s wife, Glenmary.

Drive 19 miles west to Biloxi, and it’s much the same: The genteel antebellum mansions on the Gulf are largely gone, replaced by the ka-ching of eight casinos making money. Tourists looking for high-stakes poker might head to the beachside Beau Rivage Resort & Casino or the massive Imperial Palace Casino Resort & Spa (IP) on the Back Bay, where the buy-in is only $60. I played the Gold Fish slots with the blue-rinse crowd and then sat down next to two people pumping coins into the Mummy Returns machines. “I’m gonna have fun till this baby comes,” crowed one mom-to-be, who fled when I asked her name. The city really is a veritable Babylon on the Bayou. Tired of the slots? See a show. In April, you can catch Ronnie Milsap’s act at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, REO Speedwagon at the IP or Kenny Loggins at the Beau Rivage.

“Yep, tourism is pretty much back at 100 percent,” says restaurateur Bobby Mahoney. His mom founded Mary Mahoney’s Old French House Restaurant, a Biloxi institution in gluttony since 1964. Tourists and locals pop in for gumbo with massive Gulf shrimp, lobster Georgo (lobster and shrimp in a cream sauce) or the shrimp and lump-crabmeat Melba. “My chef thinks everybody is a lumberjack,” says Bobby gleefully, seeing my gastric distress.

Bobby rode out the storm in his living quarters above the restaurant. That was a mistake. “We thought Camille [in 1969] was the mother of all storms. We found out that storms don’t have mothers,” he says dryly. A wave from Katrina crashed through a second-floor window and hit him “like five linebackers,” he says, lodging a piece of glass in his butt. His family applied duct tape to the gash, and he lay on the carpet for five hours while the storm passed.

The businesses on either side of Mary Mahoney’s still haven’t rebuilt, but Bobby reopened the restaurant 55 days after the storm, despite the wreckage. “It is depressing, looking where all the homes used to be,” he admits. “You can build, but you can’t afford the insurance. Besides, we just lost everything. It’s hard to say ‘Let’s rebuild!’ It will take two or three generations to overcome the fear.”

Amazingly, however, not everyone is afraid of the beach. Beauvoir, the last home of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederacy, is back open, with its expansive views of the Gulf. In Biloxi, architect Frank Gehry’s crazy-looking silver pods are rising again in front of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, just a few blocks away from the Mississippi Sound. A tribute to George E. Ohr, who was known as the Mad Potter of Biloxi, the museum had just been completed when Katrina and a casino barge wiped it out. Now the beaches have new sand, and Bobby Mahoney thinks the Gulf waters are underrated compared with Florida’s. “See that muddy water? There’s a lot of loving going on in that water. Beaucoup fish, shrimp, crab and oysters,” he says with a distinct twinkle. Maybe, just maybe, I think, it won’t take two generations for our love affair with the Gulf to return.