BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- “It’s another of our great bumps,” is how Charles Gray, director of the Hancock County Historical Society, describes Hurricane Katrina’s horrific impact on Bay St. Louis, Waveland and the surrounding Mississippi Gulf Coast.
"Bump" though it may turn out to be, Katrina dealt a devastating blow to the Gulf Coast's rich architectural history, and much of Gray's time is now devoted photographically documenting the losses among the 576 homes in Hancock County that were on the National Registry of Historical Places prior to Katrina. To do that, he often has to turn to landmarks in order to identify the slabs of concrete where the grand homes once stood.
He is being assisted in the effort by fewer than a dozen members of the Hancock County Historical Society, which before Katrina had 1,018 members and was one of the largest civic institutions along the Gulf Coast.
“Our job is to fill in the records that were kept over the last 25 years, particularly the National Registry houses, but also the other beautiful ones not on the registry,” Gray says. “Our project is to document the demise of these magnificent homes and, possibly, the families along with them.”
As the effort moves forward, the full extent of the loss of the area's historic treasures becomes clearer.
“Everything you see here is just about gone,” he says, gesturing toward a wall of the society's offices in a small house behind the courthouse, which is covered with more than 100 photographs of historic buildings. “Everything.”
Gray, a former New Orleans restaurateur with a rich, melodic voice, isn't approaching the project as an observer. He is one of the thousands of Gulf Coast residents who lost a home to the storm. He now lives on its slab in a FEMA trailer differentiated from those of his neighbors only by the silver Rolls Royce parked in front.
In his case, the loss of his home was made worse by his family's deep roots in the area and his passion for history. Gray's great-great-great-great-great grandfather was one of the original surveyors of the Mississippi Territory and a signatory of the Mississippi Constitution in 1817, the year the territory was granted statehood, and a great many family treasures were stolen by Katrina. The storm also snatched treasured antiques and artworks, including a painting by 17th Century Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn and furniture dating back to the reign of Louis XVI (1774-92).
While he clings to the historian's view of Katrina as a "great bump" for the region and sees "great prospects" for Bay St. Louis, Gray has no illusions about what has been lost to the most destructive hurricane in U.S. history.
“Everything will be nice and new, but everything will be a reproduction of what we once had, which will not necessarily please me as a historian," he says. "But that’s the way it goes.”
“As long as it has that ambience,” Gray says, his voice trailing off as he gazes ruefully out a window.
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