Crude Summer: Gulfport, Miss.

Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi coast hurricane five years ago. Now beach-front communities are learning how to pick up the pieces after another type of disaster: the oil spill.

September 1, 2010

Any other summer when you roll down Beach Boulevard in Mississippi’s coastal towns of Gulfport and Biloxi, you see beaches filled with sun-loving vacationers. Cars cruise up and down the road visiting shops, restaurants, hotels, and casinos. But this June, the streets were eerily quiet and the beaches all but deserted as oil-fearing vacationers stayed away.

At first, the drop in tourism seemed mostly unwarranted, as oil loomed some 30 to 80 miles off the coast. Then, at the end of June, oil came onto southern Mississippi’s shores in thick waves of tar, thanks in large part to Hurricane Alex. Now each day is different on the coast. Some days the water is clear and cleanup crews have the sand spotless. On other days tar balls wash ashore.

For many living and working in this region, the oil disaster has sparked unpleasant memories of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the area in August 2005. "Five years ago, this area looked like an atomic bomb went off," says Stephanie Shaw, broker-owner of Latter and Blum Inc., REALTORS®—Shaw Properties in Gulfport. Hurricane Katrina washed away nearly the entire coast of her town and the surrounding Mississippi communities. Eight of the 11 people in Shaw's real estate office lost their homes due to Katrina.

Streets were filled with debris for months and it took years for crumbled buildings to be entirely cleaned up.

But Gulfport survived and rebounded, with real estate activity picking up steadily over the past year, according to Shaw. Lots left vacant by Katrina’s wrath are starting to see new construction.

Now, Shaw is concerned about her community having enough resources to deal with the spill’s aftermath. "As a broker-owner, I’m much more worried about the unknowns. What if we do have a hurricane this season? What would it wash in? What would the cleanup effort be?"

Ashley Endris, a practitioner in Shaw’s office, says she’d like for BP to have a liaison to each Gulf Coast community who would work directly with real estate professionals, business owners, and community leaders to communicate cleanup plans, give updates on the claims process, and provide insight into their long-term plans for mitigating any drops in tourism.

So far, Shaw’s brokerage has not seen a significant business drop. Although others in her community reported up to 30 percent year-over-year decreases, Shaw said in June that she’d lost only one sale because of the spill. Having been working for some time to expand her marketing efforts, Shaw actually saw an increase in her June numbers over the same time last year. "I’m being cautiously optimistic," she says, acknowledging that even without an oil spill, the market is contending with the end of the buyer tax credit and rising home owner insurance costs. "The situation seems to change weekly, and it’s different from city to city and county to county. But we can earn a living if people still come and go, buy and sell."

Erica Christoffer
Product Manager

Erica Christoffer is the product manager for REALTOR® Magazine, driving growth and helping make data-driven decisions for the editorial products and programs that fall under the publication's umbrella. Erica also co-manages the magazine's 30 Under 30 program. During her tenure as an editor, she wrote and edited hundreds of articles for the magazine and launched the Broker to Broker section. Connect with Erica via email: