Emily Wagster Pettus
Jackson, MS — On the morning the Walmart reopened last week in Pass Christian, rain canceled a small parade Mayor Chipper McDermott had planned, so folks stood inside the store and handed out gaudy Mardi Gras beads instead of throwing them from a float.
They might as well have been tossing dollars into the town treasury, and McDermott knows it.
Recovery from Hurricane Katrina has been slow in Pass Christian, a coastal town once filled with antique shops, artists’ galleries and century-old homes. Katrina’s surge caused massive structural damage to the community and sucked away much of the local tax base when it struck Aug. 29, 2005.
While the opening of Walmart in some towns has been greeted with fears the retailing giant would hurt locally owned businesses, there wasn’t a flinch this week in “the Pass,” as locals call it, where many of the mom-and-pop shops still haven’t come back.
“We’ve got a new neighbor that was an old neighbor that we’re damn sure glad is back,” McDermott said from his town about 65 miles east of New Orleans.
His assessment says a lot about what Pass Christian has been through since Katrina’s eye came ashore just west of town, near the Bay of St. Louis.
The hurricane erased the local harbor, though it has since been rebuilt. The population plunged from 6,579 in 2000 to 3,993 by 2008, according to the Census Bureau. Many people have not returned because they can’t afford the rising cost of insurance for homes or businesses.
The Walmart store that was gutted by Katrina was only a few hundred yards from the shore. The new one is further inland and at a higher elevation.
Thousands of volunteers from around the nation converged on Pass Christian, especially in the first year after the storm. College students and church groups helped build parks and rip moldy carpeting out of damaged homes.
“They would come and do the dirtiest jobs,” said Sally James, director of Pass Christian Public Library.
City Hall, the Police Department and the library are still operating in temporary trailers while new buildings are constructed with a combination of local, state and federal money.
Diane Peranich, a Democrat who has represented the Pass Christian area in the state House of Representatives for nearly 21 years, said that until this week, the town had gone more than four years without a place to fill a prescription or buy eyeglasses.
State Tax Commission records show the town collected $498,694 in sales taxes during the year ending June 30, 2003 — the last full year before Walmart opened. The city’s collections jumped to nearly $1.2 million the following year, and nearly $1.3 million the next year.
After Katrina, sales tax collections dropped to $608,070. They plunged to $375,491 in the year ending June 30, 2008, the most recent figures available.
Mike Lamarca Jr. and his wife, Dawn, own Pirates Cove, a restaurant that specializes in sloppy roast beef po’ boys. Katrina reduced their beachfront building to a slab.
The Lamarcas reopened in a 12-by-24-foot trailer a few weeks after the storm. In June 2008, they moved near the harbor in what they intend to be another temporary site.
Lamarca said he’s looking for a suitable place to build, but insurance is prohibitively expensive. For now, Pirates Cove has a limited menu and six picnic tables on a covered deck.
“It’s OK,” Lamarca said. “But when you’ve got this hot, muggy weather, people don’t want to sit out there and eat.”
The mayor predicted full recovery from Katrina will take at least another four years.
“It was a beautiful place,” McDermott said, “before the hurricane.”