Five years ago, a storm named Katrina nearly killed Bobby Mahoney — and nearly destroyed his family’s decades-old restaurant in the process. This is the story of how both survived the baddest storm Biloxi has ever seen. (Somehow.)
story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 1, 2010
It was a stupid thing to do. He knows that now, Bobby Mahoney does. Bobby’s up in the second floor of the home Mary built. The water level’s inching up the walls. Hell of a sturdy home, Bobby says. Camille’s knee-high water and triple-digit winds made a mess of the old home, but Camille was the worst. That’s what they all said: the worst. The mother of all hurricanes. A five-hundred year storm. So Bobby’s Momma built back, Mary Mahoney did. Rebar, pour concrete, more rebar, cinder blocks. Built a small fortress, really, just steps from the Gulf of Mexico. Mary Mahoney knew it in business and she knew it in homes: you build to last.
But now here’s Bobby Mahoney, looking out his second floor window, and the water level’s right there. This bitch of a storm, Katrina they’re calling her, and this water’s higher than anything Camille ever brought in. These two panes on the window are starting to bulge a little, puffing in and out like they’ve got their own breath, and Bobby’s brother-in-law’s telling him to calm that window down. Go put your hands on it or something. Don’t let it break.
So Bobby goes and kneels down next to the window, and he gets one hand up against the window, and then the second, and he’s got just a little pressure on the panes, slowing that rhythm down, the water still rising up against the house, and Bobby can see it coming closer. The ’47 hurricane showed up at night, and so did Camille, and so has just about every other storm that’s ever hit Biloxi, who knows why, but Katrina’s come knocking in the middle of the day, so Bobby’s down against the frame, keeping that window from pulsing and looking straight down at this water that’s rising up, which means that he’s not even noticing that right in front of him there’s this wave — no, but waves are what you’d go surfing on during your week-long Hawaiian vacation, with ukuleles and leis and little drinks with little umbrellas in them, and this thing is more like a sucker punch, breaking through the glass and throwing Bobby Mahoney 20 feet back across the room, so no, maybe wave isn’t exactly the right word here, but whatever it is, it’s here — and now the Gulf of Mexico has shifted inside Mary Mahoney’s rebar-and-concrete built-to-last fortress and is making itself at home on the carpet.
Bobby is bleeding, now. There’s three-and-a-half inches of glass sticking straight out of his ass. The hospital’s close enough that two policeman are going to show up in five or six hours, grab two limbs each and carry Bobby to the emergency room, but the hospital’s under water too at this moment. Someone else takes a roll of duct tape and patches up the bleeding. Bobby lies on the carpet. A heart attack took his Daddy on Wednesday, and they put Robert Mahoney, Sr., in the ground on Saturday. Today is Monday, and Bobby Jr. is on the carpet, praying. There are three-and-a-half inches of glass in his ass, and duct tape keeping the rest of it together, and each little jab from Katrina is bringing more of the Gulf of Mexico into the room and shifting the carpet and tossing Bobby Jr. around. He is praying, that the waves don’t get much higher, that the rebar holds, that the bleeding doesn’t get worse, that the water will start to drain away, that the city will be spared, and so will their lives, and all of those things will come to be.
Duct tape saved Bobby Mahoney’s ass that day, and maybe his life.
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It took two weeks to re-open Mary Mahoney’s Old French House after Hurricane Camille hit. It took 55 days to do it after Katrina.
But both times, the restaurant came back. After Katrina, they marked Xs through parts of the green spray paint on the side of the building. “We‘ll Be Are Back!” the words now read.
Bobby runs the place, and he remembers the first post-Katrina customers well. Some walked out of what was left of their homes, others out of their news vans, and they sat right down at white tablecloths and ordered seafood gumbo.
“People wanted to come out,” Bobby says. “They were living in trailers. This was a little bit of sanity for them.”
But don’t mistake Mary Mahoney’s for a neighborhood coffee shop. The restaurant is just about the only non-casino restaurant in Biloxi — pre- or post-Katrina — that has tablecloths, which makes it feel either quaint or classy, which in today’s Biloxi makes it the place tourists go to get a taste of the city that, frankly, didn’t even exist in restaurant form until Mary Mahoney created it back in 1964.
Her restaurant used to be on Magnolia Street before the city changed the name to Rue Magnolia. Paul Newman and Tennessee Williams ate here, and so did President Carter. Grisham put the restaurant in two of his books. The restaurant’s presidential platter — crab claws and soft shell crabs — was served for the President on the White House lawn in the summer of 1984.
Mary’s not around anymore. She died in ’85 of a brain tumor, a year after serving that meal for the Reagans. But the stories about Mary have been around long enough that the family can just trot them out like so many servings of bread pudding. Here’s Bobby talking about his daddy heading to the newsstand every week to pick up a copy of Sunday New York Times Magazine for Mary. Here’s one about the time Gloria Vanderbilt stopped in for dinner, her son Anderson Cooper eating in just a towel. And here’s Bobby’s personal favorite little one-liner about his momma, born without a college education but with an advanced degree in what Bobby calls “social endeavors.”
Then they’ll want to talk about her restaurant. The dates get a little fuzzy, but the restaurant is inside a building that was built in 1737, slave quarters and all, which Bobby says make the place even older than the Biloxi home that locals actually call The Old House. Bobby’s maternal grandfather, Tony Cvitanovich, came to Biloxi from Croatia in 1898. He was a fisherman there and a fisherman here, which makes Bobby a part of a remarkable lineage of Biloxians in his own right.
Back in the ’80s, Bobby recalls, the future for Biloxi was unclear. The coast had rebuilt after Camille, and the city had paid off its debts. But Biloxi faced new economic challenges.
“We were a tourist town without tourists,” he says. “We had four hotels, and three were in bankruptcy.” His $14 seafood gumbo, he notes, wasn’t much in vogue.
But then the other thing arrived that saved Bobby Mahoney’s ass: legalized gambling.
Make a the list of things that kept Biloxi in business, Bobby says, and “casinos would be 90 percent of the list.” He says after casinos arrived in the early 1990s, his business tripled.
“Yeah, we were smoking,” he said.
Then Katrina came and knocked the casinos offline for a year, some 18 months. But they did come back, and impressively so. By 2007, Biloxi did more than $1 billion in gross gaming revenue, higher than at any point before Katrina, according to city records.
Thanks to tourism, Bobby says business is doing fine. Mary Mahoney’s is right there on Casino Row, Highway 90 in downtown, a crosswalk away from both the Hard Rock and the Beau Rivage. Tourism is down a few ticks due to the economy and the oil spill this year, but as Bobby notes, “that entertainment dollar is always the last one to go in a recession.”
“They’ll cut out buying big cars,” he says. “They’ll cut out buying appliances and homes and things like that. But that last dollar to go is the one we can eat with and drink with.”
Duct tape saved Bobby Mahoney’s ass that day, and maybe his life.
As long as people are still spending money on casino vacations, he says, they’ll find their way across the street for white tablecloths and low lighting and gumbo. He says he’s not seeing growth in revenues right now, but his numbers have stayed flat these last two years. Many in Biloxi aren’t as lucky.
His prices haven’t risen due to spill-inflated seafood prices, either. He says his margins are enough as is to make do for the restaurant and the three generations of Mahoneys that depend on it. Most in Biloxi aren’t as lucky.
Yes, Mary Mahoney’s is the exception in town. It is fine dining in a city where, during the casino boom of the late 1990s, income still measured less than $18,000 per capita. Three blocks away, homes still under construction sit on stilts, but here at the Old French House, there is just the warm bubble of Casino Row, insulating all that sit within.
Camille couldn’t finish off Bobby Mahoney, and neither could Katrina, or for that matter a piece of glass, or a recession, or the largest environmental disaster in American history. The tourists just keep coming, the tables just keep turning over. Here at the restaurant Mary created, her son can look out from inside the bubble of Casino Row and wonder if this, finally this, was built to last. ❑