The Man Who Tried to Save Biloxi.

Four years after Hurricane Camille, in a town the storm left for dead, the man running the local funeral home decided to give his city new life. This is his story.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 2, 2010

The death count doesn’t really put it in perspective. More than a 130 people died along the Mississippi coast when Hurricane Camille hit the Gulf in late August of 1969. A government report later found that in Mississippi and Louisiana alone, 5,600 homes were destroyed and another 13,900+ suffered major damage. The storm knocked out power and toppled bridges; so do many other hurricanes, and those hurricanes weren’t near as exceptional as Camille.

So perspective on Camille is a little different. Perspective is asking government officials to guess the wind speed of a hurricane[1] because all the wind-monitoring equipment gets blown away by the storm. Perspective is a death count that’s delayed weeks because the storm’s uprooted dozens of bodies from local cemeteries, leaving officials to separate the “was dead” from the “is dead.” Perspective is the state declaring martial law for an entire coast because the law’s left town and might not come back. Perspective is Navy officials assuring the local paper that they’re “not going to burn the town” of Pass Christian, Miss., even though rumor has it that a city-wide torching is about to take place. Perspective is the same paper’s sports editor, Dick Lightsey, writing,

“As a member of the Occupational Forces of the United States, this writer had the opportunity of viewing the scene of destruction at Hiroshima. It was total. But its area was small compared to the miles upon miles of total havoc wrecked by Camille.”

and no one writing back to suggest otherwise.

Perspective is when four years after Camille, in a town the hurricane left for dead, the man running the local funeral home decides to give his city new life.

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The palm trees in front of Jerry O'Keefe's home.

(Above) The palm trees in front of Jerry O’Keefe’s home. He’s replanted them on that Biloxi beach after each major storm.

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“I planted those palm trees out there, in the front beach. You can see them there?” Jerry O’Keefe sticks a paw out toward the front windows. Across the road, there are six palm trees sticking up out of the white sand. “There are lots of weddings and all that take place out there. It always makes me feel proud that I had that idea. I got it down in Jamaica. I was down there on a short vacation in the 1950s. They had palm trees right out on the sand, and I said, ‘Hell, I can do that at home.'”

Home is Biloxi. It was once Ocean Springs, just a few minutes west across the bridge, but the O’Keefes lost that home in the Depression. O’Keefe was a teenager. He started flying jets for the Navy at 19. He went to war, and then he came back and worked in the family business, the O’Keefe Funeral Home, which has been operating in Mississippi since the year Lincoln was shot. He founded a life insurance company, which became one of the biggest in the state. Financially secure, O’Keefe decided to run for the state Congress — and won.

But after Camille, O’Keefe says he felt an obligation to build back the city of Biloxi.

“Raising 13 children here, I had big stake in its future,” he says. Chief among his plans: turning Biloxi into “a major resort destination.”

O’Keefe won election as mayor of the city in 1973. But before he could build Biloxi into a resort, he had to deal with the city’s empty checkbook. O’Keefe says the city was so broke, he was paying Biloxi’s police chief on a rookie patrolman’s salary. Biloxi needed tax revenues to finance the rebuilding effort, but Camille had destroyed much of the city’s taxable property.

“Capital improvements were very difficult to finance, if not impossible,” he says.

So he went looking for loopholes in the system to get federal funding. With the money he pulled together, O’Keefe managed to build the city’s first public marina and several major roads.

But O’Keefe admits that many of his hopes for Biloxi — including a long-term vision for the city — failed to come into effect during his eight years as mayor.

“There were a lot of those plans that gathered dust on shelves in City Hall,” he admits. The city never had “enough money to pull the trigger on them.”

O’Keefe started flying jets for the Navy at 19. He went to war, and then he came back and worked in the family business, the O’Keefe Funeral Home, which has been operating in Mississippi since the year Lincoln was shot. He founded a life insurance company, which became one of the biggest in the state. Then he ran for the state Congress — and won.

Late in O’Keefe’s second term, he flirted with a plan that become known as Skylift. He’d seen a coastal town in North Carolina that had used a gondola to move residents back and forth from the mainland to a residential area just offshore. O’Keefe wanted a big developer to do the same on Deer Island, which sits a few hundred yards beyond his palm trees. But despite personal visits to several builders, including the Marriott family, he failed to secure a deal.

Still, thanks to the growth of Biloxi’s casinos, O’Keefe thinks the city is “coming close” to becoming a top-tier resort. But it’s not there yet, he says.

The palm trees O’Keefe planted out front have been hit by several big storms since that spark of an idea in Jamaica. When the trees get destroyed by a storm, O’Keefe says he just goes out and plants again. Biloxi is known for its water, but even its smallest projects still need to grow from the ground up. ❑