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The Gulf Coast is OPEN for Business!

Southern Yacht Club’s impressive new facility, which was  completely rebuilt after the club flooded and exploded during  Hurricane Katrina, hosts the nation’s oldest, continuous long distance race, The Race for the Coast, on June 9. Photo by Bob Maher
Southern Yacht Club’s impressive new facility, which was completely rebuilt after the club flooded and exploded during Hurricane Katrina, hosts the nation’s oldest, continuous long distance race, The Race for the Coast, on June 9. Photo by Bob Maher

Back in the 1960’s, there was no interstate connecting Gulf Coast travelers from New Orleans to Mobile. Before the I10, you took Hwy. 90 through Mississippi and knew every landmark and bathroom stop: the Friendship House and its iconic Deer Ranch; Broadwater Beach Marina; the Biloxi Lighthouse; Gus Stevens Restaurant; and the latest beach re-nourishment signs that inevitably followed every hurricane.

I will never forget that first trip in the family’s old Chrysler Brougham down Hwy. 90 after Hurricane Camille, which was considered the epitome of destructive hurricanes. Until Katrina, of course. The ancient, massive oak trees with their sprawling roots that seemed to stretch endlessly all the way to Tennessee were still there, but dozens of shrimp boats and tug boats were haphazardly tossed across the beach highway, onto the shore, like lawn ornaments near historic antebellum homes. Lesser structures didn’t survive the storm surge, leaving foundations, toilets, and bathtubs as painful eyesores. That is, until that building was refurbished or razed and something completely spectacular took its place.

I will always miss my beloved Deer Ranch; fond memories and photos of me feeding the deer with milk bottles in my mother’s albums are all that remain. But each hurricane requires coastal residents to rebuild and modernize our infrastructure and landmarks, usually with Federal grant and disaster relief monies.

Katrina’s best legacy, if there actually is one, is that she ushered in an era of land-based gaming in Mississippi that rivals Las Vegas. Today’s Mississippi Gulf Coast is lined with 12 grand casinos offering world class entertainment and superb restaurants. The newest casino, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, just opened with a nice marina on the east end of Biloxi’s Back Bay, providing 1,000 new jobs and a uniquely themed buffet for hungry Parrotheads and gamblers alike.

That’s the latest addition to a completely reinvigorated Gulf Coast. If you avoided this region during 2010 and 2011, fearful of the effects of the oil spill in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida’s panhandle, it’s time to head back. Pensacola’s beaches have never looked better and the water is beautiful. The commercial fishermen are out in full force in Mobile Bay and the variety of outdoor activities in Louisiana and Mississippi are endless. As I write this column on April 25, I’m perplexed choosing among the activities to celebrate this weekend.

New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Festival has a about 50 crawfish dishes to sample and a great lineup of musicians, including Bruce Springsteen and Al Green, but that competes with Smoking the Sound in Biloxi, the first race of the year for the Offshore Super Series Powerboat Racing Association with 30 race boats clocking speeds of over 150 mph in 13 categories.
Most of the coast’s boating activities are decidedly smaller than in past years, with many vessels lost in some hurricane du jour; nonetheless, Gulf Yachting Association (GYA) races are just as exciting. It’s all good tonic for what ails the survivors of many hurricanes, one spill, and a recession with no real end in sight. Gulf Coast residents are resilient and positive, overcoming multiple, seemingly insurmountable setbacks, undaunted.

In its heyday, the Race to the Coast from Southern Yacht Club in New Orleans to Gulfport had over 70 boats competing. This year, about 20 will race through Lake Pontchartrain into the Rigolets and the Mississippi Sound. That’s actually not discouraging. This race, which originated in 1850, is the oldest, continuous long distance race in the United States….it’s a little smaller some years, but the sailors are just as salty and the tradition endures.

Getting a slice of the BP settlement pie
The BP oil spill definitely added insult to injury for marine businesses, most of whom still remain uncompensated for their 2010−2011 losses. Many interim claims got lost in a paperwork shuffle with Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF). If you’re from around here, you already know that GCCF is another four-letter word that makes your Mama frown.

John Neighbor, who owns three marinas in Pensacola, finally hired an attorney to get his share of the big BP $7.8 billion settlement.

“GCCF didn’t argue the amount due,” says Neighbor. “They argued accounting methodology and loss of income percentage rules, in spite of impeccable documentation as to where our income should be. Fixed costs for a marina don’t change.”
Neighbor lost 34 percent of his customers and only got 10 percent back. Worn out from Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis, they threw their hands up and folded their sails after the spill.

“People dumped their boats and left,” says Neighbor. “During economic downturn, the last bill paid is the marina. It will be another year before we’re back to full occupancy. We’re okay, just lean.”

While the spill’s long term impact on fisheries remains unclear, the visual effects to the water and beach are as if nothing ever occurred. The water is beautiful and all the fishing tourneys are back for 2012, including the upcoming Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic with $1.24 million in cash prizes. Based at the Isle of Capri Hotel and Casino in Biloxi, the billfish classic offers golf, seafood boils and throw-down dock parties.

There are no boundaries to this deep, offshore tournament that holds the Gulf record for a 1054.6 pound blue marlin caught in 2001. Some participants venture out 300 miles to search the deep, underwater canyons and oil rigs that are rich with barnacles and baitfish.

Escambia County’s $5 million re-nourishment program
Next to Mardi Gras, gumbo and fishing rodeos, restoration is the connective tissue of our Gulf Coast communities. While Louisiana creates oyster fisheries and restores its marsh with its BP money, Florida’s Escambia County is building boat ramps, restoring sand dunes and coral reefs, and implementing water quality enhancements in the Pensacola area.

“Our 2010 boating season was taken away and we can’t get it back,” said Robert Turpin, manager of marine resources for Escambia County. “Agencies and contractors used our ramps and there were booms on nearly every tributary. People just didn’t go out on the waterways. But we can mitigate that and provide a greater number of boating opportunities for 2012 and 2013.”

Turpin says mariners are more aware of their impact on waterways and bayous.

“People actually think about watching their props to avoid scarring seagrass and pumping out in an appropriate place. But we cannot lose our vigil. Everyone is now acutely aware of what we have and what we can lose.”

This is how we live on the Gulf Coast. Our lust for its waterways – the Gulf of Mexico, the bays, the rivers, and estuaries – perpetuates our cycle of life and cultural rituals. Repairing the damage done to our ecosystem, by both manmade, human disasters and acts of God, spans the gamut of societal intervention, from planting a single tree to the vastness of Saving Louisiana’s Wetlands from the encroaching Gulf of Mexico. It keeps us busy as we look forward to boating, skiing, fishing, and tourists, season after season, rain or shine.

The daughter of a son of a son of a long line of working sailors, Lisa has always gravitated toward a coastline and splits her time between Coastal Mississippi and South Florida. A native of New Orleans, Lisa (formerly Lisa Hoogerwerf Knapp) pens for major megayacht and luxury lifestyle magazines and will be a regular contributor with All At Sea Southeast.

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