History professor Dr. Doug Bristol fell easily for the charms of this seaside town in 2003 when he came to interview for a faculty position with The University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“When the search committee took me to dinner in Bay St. Louis during my campus visit, the town’s eclectic, relaxed atmosphere and the charming historic district immediately put me under its spell,” he said. “I purchased my home in the historic Old Town neighborhood as soon as I moved to Mississippi.”
Now he’s using his experience and expertise as a professional historian to help this beloved community recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and preserve its heritage as the newest member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.
The Bay St. Louis City Council unanimously passed a resolution last summer to appoint Bristol to fill a vacancy on the commission. Established in April 2007, it advises local government on matters relating to historic preservation and reviews applications for permits to alter, construct or demolish buildings in the Bay St. Louis Historic District.
Bristol teaches a course on Mississippi history for Southern Miss and is familiar with the scholarship on the state’s past. He plans to involve Southern Miss students in service-learning projects with the historic commission as interns. He also has ties to some of the country’s leading historical organizations, such as the National Archives and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Preservation of both commercial and residential buildings within the city’s Old Town historic district is a high priority for Bristol, who sees these structures as “a tangible link to our past that will become a legacy for our children” and key to the economic development strategy of the town. He’s also committed to providing moral support and up-to-date information on historic preservation information to those planning improvements to their properties.
“Doug's passion for history, affection for Bay St. Louis and position at Southern Miss has already proven to be a great asset to the commission,” said Terie Velardi, commission vice chair. “In the short time Doug has been with the HPC, he has shown himself to be thoughtful and compassionate when property owners come in front of the commission.”
Another concern for Bristol as a commission member is the residential cottages in the area like his own, which took in three feet of water from Katrina. “These small but distinctive homes represent generations of Southern families, the strong community they built and the simple pleasures of life on the Bay.”
Bristol says the Old Town District is more than a tourist destination. It is home to a group of artists who collaboratively run businesses to support their work. Bristol was part owner of one of these businesses, Shabby Chic Designs, a combination art gallery and confectionary, until last summer.
At the town’s popular art walks, held on the second Saturday of every month from 4-8 p.m., visitors experience what Bristol describes as “the high spirits and refined funkiness” of the town’s business community. The festive gatherings, which feature local musicians and light refreshments courtesy of business owners, have also become homecomings that allow residents displaced by Katrina to catch up with old neighbors.
“I’ll never forget the first post-Katrina art walk, held three months after the hurricane,” Bristol said. “Although some of the shops, including my own, had to rely on portable generators to open, young and old alike celebrated being alive by dancing in the street to the lilting melodies of a Cajun band.”
A diverse community
Established on a bluff overlooking the Bay of Saint Louis more than 300 years ago, this tightly knit community still includes many residents whose French and Spanish names connect them to the original European settlers, even as it welcomes newcomers from around the globe. Its proximity to New Orleans lends the town a cosmopolitan air that has been reinforced lately by the presence of thousands of volunteers from as far away as Australia and Ireland, Bristol said.
Its people are a diverse collection that includes artists, old families, retirees, scientists from the nearby Stennis Space Center and weekend residents from New Orleans. “To get along with one’s neighbors, a highly valued trait in this laid-back community, means understanding people who are different from oneself which fosters the creativity for which the town is famous.”
“And although institutions such as the Alice Moseley Museum, the historically black Catholic church St. Rose de Lima, and Hollywood Casino (formerly Casino Magic) attract visitors to Bay St. Louis, the real appeal of the town is its strong sense of community, which became especially clear following Hurricane Katrina,” he said.
In loss, discovery of resilience – and renewed faith
For Bristol, Katrina represents both loss – of friends, students and possessions – and resilience, within himself and in the people of his community.
He rode out the storm at a friend’s home in Hattiesburg. Dreading what he would see as he drove back to Bay St. Louis three days later, he was greeted by a surreal vision of utter devastation.
“As soon as I crossed the bridge over the Jordan River, the smell of mud and dead things overwhelmed my senses,” he said. “In a vain attempt to protect their cars, people who lived on low ground had parked their vehicles along Highway 603, and the storm scattered the vehicles across the road and into the woods. People driven out of the backcountry by the tidal surge walked zombie-like along the roads throughout town.”
As he drew closer to his neighborhood, Bristol finally spotted a familiar face when going down Main Street, a neighbor sitting on his porch who said he thought Bristol’s house was still there. Hope gave way to joy as he pulled up in front of his apparently intact house. “It was the first house on my block that had not been blown off of its foundations, and the roof had held.”
He climbed over debris to get to the front door, and after opening it, his joy at finding his home intact turned to dismay with the discovery that everything below three feet in his home had been flooded, including with sewage, and his possessions strewn throughout. “I had difficulty recognizing this devastated building as my home,” he said.
The majority of Bristol’s friends on the Gulf Coast faculty lost their homes and had to live in temporary housing for six months to two years, which led to many of them leaving the university. Another colleague and friend received a diagnosis of cancer that she attributed to the storm, and died this summer.
His students faced a variety of hardships. “I will never forget hugging a student in class after she had burst into tears after she shared the news that her son was suffering from seizures caused by a neurological disorder brought on by exposure to mold,” Bristol said. “During the first semester after the storm, a long train of students visited me between classes to say goodbye because their families could not find employment or housing.”
Bristol lost many neighbors as well, including several elderly ones who died during the storm, while some moved into nursing homes. Other friends and acquaintances had to relocate to get their children enrolled in school, and many have not come back, he said.
But Bristol also sees Hurricane Katrina’s silver lining. Like most people in Bay St. Louis, he discovered he possessed a great deal of resilience. The storm also gave him an unlikely “gift”: a renewed faith in human nature.
“With the help of friends and my university colleagues, I managed to get mud out of my house without running water, gut my house, hang sheetrock, lay tile, finish writing a book manuscript without an office or a library, and taught classes without a campus. I will be forever grateful for their help.
“And who knew I would be so handy with a nail gun and a table saw, tools that I had to master because of an insurance settlement too small to mention.”
Bristol knows there are skeptics who question the wisdom of rebuilding the town after what Katrina wrought. But he says the sense of community and richness of social ties that mark Bay St. Louis justifies the effort and spur his passion to serve it on the commission.
“When Katrina washed away the beach road, much of the downtown, and half of the housing, the residents of Bay St. Louis gathered anyway to enjoy each other’s company,” he said. “These relationships form the community, not the buildings and infrastructure.”
CUTLINE: Southern Miss history professor Dr. Doug Bristol in front of his cottage home in Bay St. Louis, restored after taking three feet of water from the storm surge caused by Hurricane Katrina. Bristol was recently named to the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and is playing a key role in Bay St. Louis’ recovery from the storm. (Submitted photo)
CUTLINE: Southern Miss professor Dr. Doug Bristol, left, takes a break from repairing damage caused by Hurricane Katrina to his cottage in Bay St. Louis. Bristol now serves on the city’s historic preservation commission. (Submitted photo)
CUTLINE: This photo shows the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina to a beachside building in downtown Bay St. Louis. (Southern Miss Marketing and Public Relations photo by David Tisdale)
About The University of Southern Mississippi
The University of Southern Mississippi, founded in 1910, is a comprehensive doctoral and research-extensive university fulfilling its mission of being a leading university in engaging and empowering individuals to transform lives and communities. In a tradition of leadership for student development, Southern Miss is educating a 21st century work force providing intellectual capital, cultural enrichment and innovation to Mississippi and the world. Southern Miss is located in Hattiesburg, Miss., with an additional campus and teaching and research sites on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; further information is found at www.usm.edu.