Welcome to Biloxi. Get Yourself Acquainted.

Welcome to Biloxi, Miss. There’s a lot happening here right now. The five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is coming up. There’s oil coming out of the Gulf. But before we got to any of that, here’s a big question: Where the hell is here?

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published July 30, 2010

Turns out that before I can get around to answering the question that’s brought me all this way to Biloxi — namely, after Category 3+ hurricanes demolished this city in ’47, ’69, and ’05, and after a recession put every ma and pa on the coast in the red, and after BP dumped either 100 or 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, depending on who’s counting, Why in the hell are these people still here? — I need to answer a slightly less complication question:

Where is here?

For now, here is Biloxi, one of the biggest towns along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, a coast with zip codes stretching from 39521 to 39568, give or take a few, area code 228, but no need to dial that if you’re calling local, some 60 miles of coastline — from Waveland on the western edge to Pascagoula on the eastern — supporting maybe a third of a million Mississippians, though I haven’t been down in Biloxi long enough to know if people here actually call themselves that. Big industries: tourism (notably: gambling, and gambling-related subsidiaries) and seafood. Major and only export: seafood.[1]

The people here are mostly white, but there’s a large black population and a slightly smaller Hispanic one. The only other major group is the Vietnamese; they’re heavily represented in fishing communities like Biloxi.

And it’s Bill-UCK-see, not Bill-OCK-see, see, and they’ll correct you on that. City was founded in 1699. Jamestown, by way of comparison, was 1607, and New Orleans was 1718. So you know.

As for culture: they root for the Saints here — yes, yes, they are still asking Who Dat?, their fourth-grade grammar teachers be damned — and they’re proud of these things called Snowballs, which are giant sno-cones topped with either whipped cream or ice cream or both, and which never cost more than $2.50, even at cupholder-stretching sizes. The grocery store of choice is Winn Dixie or Walmart, depending on driving distance. Standard operating practice, all.

And they’re recovering, numbers seem to show. The city isn’t exactly done yet, and it might not ever be, and hell, if Jimmy Buffett’s massive Margaritaville Casino on Casino Row couldn’t get finished, that’s probably not a very good sign, since Jimmy Buffett could unload a Brinks truck on Beach Boulevard and use the bills to towel off oil-soaked pelicans and still not see a dip in his bank statement, but point is that locals say the economy’s just one more thing they’ve been fighting. The shopping’s not exemplary; one airline in-flight mag suggests that visitors check out a Mardi Gras dollar store in Gulfport, which should give you an idea of what’s left in the way of retail.

The ‘Good Stuff Cheap’ variety store around the corner from me has a sign out front advertising its latest sale: the buildin itself, no ‘g’ or apostrophe needed. The fact that the store is going for “cheap” shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

For now, Biloxi is a city propped up by people who like to play cards, but if the casinos packed up their chips, the city would too. The local population dropped off by at least double digits after Katrina [2], though the real numbers won’t be known until Census 2010 comes out.

One more thing that must be said about Biloxi: it is hot here. Yes, it is hot elsewhere, and yes, it is humid elsewhere, but Biloxi is different. It is indiscriminately hot here. Whipped cream-topped snowballs melt before you’ve paid for them. Humidity liquidizes on contact. You stand in the shade and feel bad for whatever’s in the way. It is Capital H, mercury rising/boiling/bursting H-O-T hot. Dive into the shark-infested tank at the zoo ’cause it’s climate controlled hot. Hot.

Anyway, this is here, and I will be reporting from here for a little while.