Time and Tide: Documenting Disaster

This post is part of an ongoing series, “Time and Tide: Ten Years after Katrina.” Special thanks to Jennifer Baughn, Historic Preservation Division, for writing this post.

After Hurricane Katrina, staff in the Historic Preservation Division began preparing to survey the damage to the nineteen National Register–listed historic districts and scores of individually listed historic properties in the three coastal counties.

We had conducted damage assessment surveys in other disasters such as Hurricane Georges and the Natchez and Columbus tornadoes, but as reports began to trickle in over the next few days, we realized that the scope of this disaster dwarfed anything else we had experienced. We got our first on-the-ground look at the damage on Friday, September 2, when David Preziosi of the Mississippi Heritage Trust (MHT) led an expedition that included a New York Times reporter to check in on Beauvoir and other Biloxi landmarks. We found Beach Boulevard accessible only through National Guard checkpoints, and it was passable only in places; a large construction crane lay across the road, and casino barges had floated well inland, destroying everything in their paths. The scattered and sometimes contradictory news reports had led us to expect devastation, but the on-the-ground experience was a shock. Beauvoir was still standing but was shorn of its porch and much of its roof and all of its historic outbuildings were gone. Only a few battered houses stood in Biloxi’s once-extensive West Beach Historic District; the beloved Brielmaier and Dantzler houses had vanished entirely; the stately Tullis-Toledano house had been crushed by a casino barge.

Jackson itself was without power for much of the first two weeks after the storm and most gas stations were closed, but once that situation eased, we began our survey in Bay St. Louis on Friday, September 9, with a team of seven architectural historians and photographers, with assistance from MHT and MDAH’s Archives and Records Services Division. We broke up into teams of two, walking the streets of the historic district, one of the largest in the state with almost 700 structures. The teams took photographs of each building, even if it only barely remained, and filled out a Damage Assessment Form that MDAH had found useful in previous disasters. Because MDAH had only a handful of digital cameras at that time, we relied on the familiar black-and-white 35 mm film for its archival value, and used the digital cameras as a color backup version. Instead of filling out forms for buildings that had been completely destroyed, we marked an “X” on their site on the map. Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian, not surprisingly, both seemed to have as many “X”s as surviving buildings.

BSL-historic sites beach blvdpp
This field map of the Beach Boulevard Historic District in Bay St. Louis shows the X marks MDAH surveyors made as they passed lots where no remnant of a house survived. Yellow highlighter marks the damaged buildings the teams assessed.


Over the next six weeks, damage assessment teams created survey forms on over 1,200 damaged historic properties. (These are being digitized and will be published as a digital collection). In addition to Bay St. Louis, we surveyed large sections of Pass Christian, Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, and Pascagoula, and even made our way to Waveland, Long Beach, Pearlington, Hattiesburg, and Laurel. Without a place to stay on the Coast, our days began at 6 a.m. and ended back in Jackson around midnight. We encountered difficult surroundings: no electricity or running water, destroyed landscapes, checkpoints, quarantined areas, and buildings that had floated blocks from their original locations. We also witnessed firsthand the resilience of the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, who in the midst of the wreckage offered us cold drinks and stories of survival.