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(Editor's Note: The stories of Hurricane Katrina's impact are many. The following is something different)

Coming back after Katrina; Down in Mississippi but never out

By Bruce W. Smith - Special to GCN
Filed 12/03/06

Scotty Herrin (photo above) knew without a doubt that Hurricane Katrina was going to be every bit as bad as the weather forecasters were predicting.

So the space shuttle engine mechanic at the Stennis Space Center, located about 10 miles from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, loaded a few belongings in his nearly restored ’69 Olds Cutlass and drove from his home in nearby Picayune, Mississippi, to seek safety and security at the massive concrete and steel test stands where he worked.

It was Saturday, August 28, 2005.

At the same time, some 30 miles to the east, in Gulfport, Mississippi, Cory Kessen (photo below right) was moving his ’72 Camaro into a mini-storage facility on high ground to protect it from being flooded at his home just off the Biloxi Back Bay. It was just finished and ready for Cruisin’ The Coast, complete with a fresh 468cid Merlin dragboat motor shoe-horned in under the sliver-and-black hood.

“My wife and I had just taken our ’72 Buick GSX to Hattiesburg, some 60 miles to the north, to store it in a shop that was going to handle the restoration,” says the muscle car lover and owner of Mid City Motors in Gulfport. “So I knew it was safe from the hurricane.”

“After we parked her Camaro in the mini-warehouse, we took our two kids and moved into one of our rental houses a little closer to the beach, but on much higher ground than our house located on the bayou.

His instincts were right on—at least in a couple aspects.

“As it turned out, the GSX was fine and, like I expected, our house on the bayou had 15 feet of water come into it. What I wasn;t expecting was our rental house were we hunkered out the storm, getting nearly a foot of water over the first floor, and the storage unit where the Camaro was stored being submerged in about four feet of bay water.”   

Bill “Billy” Pennell, (photo left) an avid classic car collector, knows all about the flooded mini warehouses. He owned them. Pennell had been through Hurricane Camille and, like Herrin and Kessen, knew protecting the life of his family, his grandmother and grandkids were first and foremost. The cars came second.

When he finished locking the storage doors on the last of the 17 classic and collector cars he had secured in his group of mini-warehouses across the street from where Kessen had his car stored, Pennell loaded his family into a big motorhome and hit the road for northern Alabama to wait out Katrina’s fury.

“I knew Brickyard Bayou, which passes right behind these warehouses, would flood its banks with a 10-foot tidal surge moving into the Biloxi Back Bay,” Pennell says, standing beside his ’67 Camaro RS/SS convertible a little more than a year after Katrina slammed the Mississippi Coast.

“What I never imagined was the tidal surge would actually be closer to 25 feet.”

Pennell returned a week or so after the hurricane. What he found was his custom metal fabrication and restoration shop had been flattened by the 125-mph-plus winds,  and the mini-warehouse where he and his son’s collection of cars were stored had been inundated with more than five feet of saltwater—and five of the car stalls were ripped apart by the winds.

They lost the entire collection.

“I was devastated,” says Pennell, his voice still quivering a bit recalling that black day. “Collecting cars had been our hobby, our passion, for the last 10 years.

“I guess secretly I kind of thought, well, the man with the most toys wins the war. Well, I had the war won before August 29. I had the war won.”

Although just a one-car owner, Herrin had similar feelings; his ’69 Oldsmobile was his pride-and joy, and his love for it ran deep.

“I’d always liked ‘69s and this was my first restoration project,” Herrin says giving a loving pat to the hood of the now fully-restored classic. “I thought it would be safe at the test stands. But as misfortune would have it the fiberglass bed shell of my manager’s pickup blew off during the height of the storm and slammed into the trunk and top doing about 130mph. Needless to say a fiberglass bed topped going that fast has a tendency to mess up a car quite a bit.”

His home and shop in Picayune, Mississippi, were also heavily damaged.

“But if I’d left the Cutlass in the shop, there’d been little left to rebuild; as it were, she’s been fully restored and is better than new.”

Their Katrina stories are but those of the hundreds of similar ones all along the Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana coast.

Tens of thousands of vehicles were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina’s massive tidal-wave-like surge that topped 30-feet in areas like Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, Mississippi, the small coastal towns that took the brunt of the massive hurricane. Among those vehicles destroyed or heavily damaged were muscle cars of all makes and models.

Ironically, at the same time Hurricane Katrina slammed the coast, Pennell, Herrin, Kessen, and muscle car enthusiasts around the country were making their final preparations to show off their rides for the biggest cruising event in the country—Cruisin’ The Coast. CTC is an October ritual for car lovers of all ages and interests.

Cruisin’ The Coast began in 1996 as a small gathering of car lovers of all types who came to the Mississippi coast to cruise its 30-miles of beach Highway 90. Along the way they enjoying the wonderful scenery, food, gambling, golf, fishing, and southern hospitality as can only be found in this region. That initial CTC drew a little more than 374 entries.

 That fist spark ignited into the biggest “cruise” of is type in the country and the biggest tourism event in the entire state.

By 2004 more than 5,300 pre-’72 “registered” car owners arrived from all 50 states along with more than 120,000 car-loving spectators and fans enjoying the week-long festivities found through the six coastal cities.

The slated 10th Anniversary 2005 CTC event looked to draw an even bigger crowd with some 4,500 pre-registrations. But it never happened.

Katrina slammed the Mississippi coast, leveling or destroying more than 65,000 homes and businesses; wiped out both of the major Highway 90 four-lane bridges linking Bay St. Louis to Pass Christian and Biloxi to Ocean Springs;  and left hundreds of thousands of Mississippians dazed.

Gene Oswalt, one of the key organizers of CTC and the Executive Director, was one of those who lost his home to Katrina. But within weeks of its passing Oswalt was already spearheading the drive to get the event re-organized for 2006.

“We need it. We all need it,” he said shortly after he returned to find his home gone.

In true Mississippi spirit, and with the continued backing and support of such community leaders as Chevis Swetman, president of The People’s Bank, Sherwood “Woody” Bailey, Jr., president of Bailey Lumber & Supply Company, and untold hours of donated time and labor from a dozen other CTC board members and local businesses, CTC 2006 came back to life.

Casinos brought in big name acts and bands, eight coastal cities hosted free concerts, cruise-ins and special functions, and Jones Park, the center of the event on the edge of Gulfport Harbor wiped clean by Katrina, once again became the focal point for all.

Although the buildings in Jones Park were now big tents, the festivities and party atmosphere was as if CTC never missed a beat.

Neither did the weather. In every previous CTC event there was at least 2-3 days of miserable weather. Not this year. The sun shone bright above clear skies for the entire week.

All Oswalt could say when asked about how he thought the 2006 10th Anniversary Cruisin’ The Coast turned out as he sat and watched the Saturday throngs rolling in and out of Jones Park was “Just unbelievable.”  His ear-to-ear smile and watery eyes said it all.

Yes, we needed it. We all needed it.

And when the first week of October rolls around next year, you can bet your SS on it that the registrations for Cruisin’ The Coast 2007 will be maxed out and the partying in the streets will be even bigger than it was in 2006.

By that time one of the bridges along Highway 90 will be open to at least two-lane traffic, allowing traffic from Pass Christian to Bay St. Louis. A few of the renown restaurants along the highway will once again have Gulf-view seating and be serving their oysters, crayfish, flounder, sea trout and other Gulf Coast specialties. The beer will be cold, the welcome hot.

New homes, motels, hotels and condos will be sprouting up in the footprints and shadows of those swept away by Katrina’s winds and waves.

The golf courses that survived will be back in full swing, as will the casinos that add their special ambiance to the area.

In fact, when the cruisers roll into the three Mississippi Gulf Coast counties for CTC 2007, they should find life on the Coast on the mend. It’ll never be the same as it was before Hurricane Katrina. But just like our cherished muscle cars, Cruisin’ The Coast has been restored to a level that definitely brings a huge smile to every car enthusiast who gets a taste of it. Maybe even bigger than before.—Bruce W. Smith

More Information:

2006 Cruisin' the Coast - GCN Feature


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