October 2, 2005

Biloxi Down But Not Out After Bout with Katrina

NASHVILLE -- Bill Holmes, executive director of the Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center in Biloxi, says his city, his entertainment market and his arena are badly bent but not broken.

With Hurricane Katrina's wrath nearly flattening the city, now the MCCCC and Biloxians at large are putting the pieces back together. "We don't smell too good right now, but we're coming back, and we're coming back strong," Holmes says. "We've got a shell. We've got a tremendous spirit, and we're going to come back bigger and better than ever."

The coliseum was a shelter of last resort as Katrina rolled in. "We only had about 50 people in the building when the storm surge started coming, and it came so quick and the wind was so furious, the police and support crews had to evacuate north," says Holmes, who stayed in the arena with a few "storm chasers." "Once the storm surge came in, it looked like you were out in the ocean the way the water was swirling around."

Holmes says the MCCCC had 51 inches of water in the building. "When Katrina left and the water receded, it was about knee-deep," he says. "From about four feet down, all of our equipment, all of our electric, the chairs, the tables, the carpet, the dancefloor -- all gone, wasted."

The President casino barge broke loose from its moorings, floated across the highway, wiped out the MCCCC's stately oak trees and took out the facility's marquee before settling on the nearby Holiday Inn, according to Holmes.

"Biloxi looks like the movie 'The Day After,"' he says. "You look across the city, and there's nothing more than three feet high. The whole east end of our city is leveled from the fury of the wind, the rage of the storm surge and then the enormity of the storm itself. It just ate up everything."


Even so, Holmes, ever the optimist, believes the MCCCC will be open for business by next spring at a cost of about $20 million. "I think probably within six to eight months we could be up and running," he says. "It's like opening up a brand-new building that's got to be rewired and needs new windows."

Many of the venue's staff lost their homes and belongings, including arena assistant executive director Matt McDonnell. "I had a lot of friends who ended up swimming out of their houses," Holmes says. "They're waiting for trailers now. I've got four families living with me."

Until the storm, Biloxi and the rest of the Mississippi Gulf Coast had been riding a decadelong crest of prosperity. "We were absolutely on the top of a wave," Holmes says. "We had shows in the building, conventions coming in. We went from 1,600 hotel rooms in 1992 to 18,000 in the county, soon to go to 25,000. A ton of talent was running through here, and it was all coming together."

Now that the region has proved itself, Holmes thinks developers will be hot to rebuild. "Because of the devastation, political leaders and the private sector are coming together, and they're going to bring in master planners to plan a beautiful community," he says.

And the main attraction, Biloxi's sugar-white beaches, will thrive again, Holmes believes. "The beach is still there. It's eroded and the boardwalks are in my lobby, but it's there."