God Bless You, Walmart.

All across the country, you’ll hear uproar from mom and pops when Walmart comes to town. But in Pass Christian, Miss., where some of the worst devastation of Katrina was felt, locals have an unusual message for the big box store.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 11, 2010

Chipper McDermott has not forgotten the date: February 8, 2008, the day a town called Pass Christian found a savior.

The cry went out from the rooftops, or whatever was left of them, anyway: Walmart was coming home.

“It was a damn big day,” says McDermott, the city’s mayor.

So this is not the story of big, bad Walmart, coming in and taking business away from local stores. In Pass Christian — the town that Camille knocked flat to the ground and that Katrina toppled again — Walmart’s return to its beachfront, pre-Katrina location was cause for celebration.

“It was almost a rebirth,” says Huey Bang, a city alderman. “It was just pure excitement. It was that vitamin shot you needed…. It sure makes life a lot easier.”

Understand where Pass Christian is coming from. It’s a six-mile-wide strip of land that stretches, at its farthest, a mile from the water. McDermott says the city has always made its money off of ad valorem taxes, which are based on the value of land. And along the beach, Pass Christian’s land is very valuable. McDermott says in the ’50s, the city’s Scenic Avenue was the third richest street in the country. Wall Street was number one.

But Hurricane Camille devastated the city. The eye of the storm passed directly over Pass Christian, bringing with it waves that were measured at 22 feet, 6 inches. It was the highest recorded storm surge in history.

“Destruction in this area was virtually complete, resembling more the effect of a tornado than a hurricane,” said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of Mobile, Ala., in a May 1970 report. At least half, or maybe two-thirds of taxable property in the city was wiped out.

Of the 4,000 people living in Pass Christian at the time of Camille, dozens died. A week after the storm, the Daily Herald newspaper published an article titled, “Pass Not to Be Put to Torch,” in which “Navy officials attempted to disqualify rumors which have prevailed over the past two or three days that Pass Christian was so devastated by Hurricane Camille that it was going to be burned.” Mayor J.J. Wittman told reporters that week, “I am mayor of a city in name only.”

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A bust of W. Dayton Robinson, whose $2 million donation helped City Hall expand after Katrina.

(At top) Drivers pass the city’s new Walmart. (Above) A bust of W. Dayton Robinson, whose $2 million donation helped City Hall expand after Katrina.

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The city did rebuild, eventually. A new City Hall went up on the highest land that Pass Christian has — about 24 feet above sea level. By the 2000 Census, over 6,000 people lived in Pass Christian.

But Pass Christian remained a residential area. They live here, Bang says, but locals work elsewhere — in Gulfport, say, 15 minutes to the west, or out at businesses near Interstate 10.

In 2002, Census workers charting economic data found that Pass Christian had only 20 retail stores, employing a total of 168 people.

Then Walmart showed up in 2003 and changed all that. The store hired over 300 people, according to company reports. Most remarkable of all, McDermott notes, is that the store even decided to come to Pass Christian. The city lobbied Walmart for months, but company executives were concerned about the location. The Beach Boulevard property is just feet from the water, and Walmart analysts were looking at what was inside a five-mile radius of the property. Half of that territory is in the Gulf of Mexico; Walmart would’ve preferred a large neighborhood of discount shoppers.

Still, city leaders managed to land the store. Pass Christian had never made much money off sales tax before, but that number started to grow now that Walmart was in town. The housing market was also booming.

And Katrina hit.

Remember those 22.6-foot surges from 1969’s Camille? Katrina’s surge rose to 27.8 feet, which is mark that’s still yet to be topped. [1] Homes that had been rebuilt in Camille had to be rebuilt again. Even the Walmart was wrecked.

McDermott became mayor in 2006, with two questions on his mind: Can we rebuild? And how?

City Hall was destroyed, so they held meetings at the fire house until FEMA trailers arrived. Help came from unexpected sources: the nation of Qatar gave $5 million. Naperville, Ill., gave $1.2 million. Mennonites showed up to build two dozen homes.

Then came the best news of all. Just as recovery funds were starting to slow, Walmart decided to return, but only after moving to a location about 1,500 feet back from the water. The store reopened on October 14, 2009. McDermott says it’s generating 70 percent of the sales tax revenue in the city, which might mean an additional $600,000 this year to help balance the city’s budget. It will not single-handedly keep the city afloat, he says, but it will help.

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Construction work is underway across all parts of the city. There’s still much to be done on the new $25 million harbor, and on the $11 million downtown. But McDermott’s thrilled about the view from his new office. After four years, he’s finally moved out of his trailer officer and into the $6 million, U.S. taxpayer-funded City Hall, which reopened last month.

The city, though, is returning more slowly. In the upcoming Census report, McDermott expects the city to measure at just over 4,000 residents.

The city lobbied Walmart for months, but company executives were concerned about the location. The Beach Boulevard property is just feet from the water, and Walmart analysts were looking at what was inside a five-mile radius of the property. Half of that territory is in the Gulf of Mexico; Walmart would’ve preferred a large neighborhood of discount shoppers.

Bang says he’s been frustrated, sometimes, at the rate of re-growth in Pass Christian. But he also admits that his expectations continue to change.

“My thought after the storm was, in a couple years, we’ll have all new structures all over the place,” he says. “I was naive in thinking that it was only going to be a couple of years.”

But growth can still come, even for a tiny town like Pass Christian. McDermott’s team is ready to make a push to annex some of the land north of Pass Christian. Much of it is a bayou that’s unfit for building, but McDermott’s confident that he’ll be able to expand the city limits — and maybe take the city a few steps beyond the pre-Katrina days.

But no matter how far inland the city goes, McDermott knows that it’s the view of the Gulf that’s going to keep Pass Christian alive.

“Natural beauty’s what built this town,” he says, “and that’s what’s going to save it.” ❑