Prior to Hurricane Katrina's devastating landfall in the early morning hours of August 29, 2005, Biloxi was the glittering, glitzy crown jewel of Mississippi's 80-mile-long Gulf Coast. With more than 50,000 people, it was the third largest city in the state, trailing only the state capital of Jackson and its twin city and immediate neighbor to the west, Gulfport.
At the time of the hurricane, Biloxi was a tourist mecca with the largest concentration of casinos between Atlantic City, New Jersey and Las Vegas, Nevada. On any given night of the week and especially on weekends, U.S. 90, the city's main east-west thoroughfare, would be jammed with cars and privately owned tour buses bringing in hordes of hopeful gamblers to Biloxi's dozen or so gaming palaces. Sitting snugly on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico, Biloxi was also a favorite destination for sun and surf worshippers from hundreds of miles around, who preferred lolling leisurely on the quiet beach to the constant ding-ding-dinging cacophony of hundreds of slot machines. Prior to the hurricane there was plenty of beach for them to choose from, and the four-lane I-110 spur between the city and Interstate 10 allowed them quick and easy access.
It hadn't always been that way. Before Mississippi legalized casino gaming in the early 1990s, Biloxi had been a sleepy Southern town with stately homes framed by centuries-old, Spanish moss-draped live oaks fronting the beach. A handful of motels that had seen better days accommodated the few tourists who still journeyed there. Once a popular resort in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Biloxi's heyday had come and gone. Time had seemingly passed it by. Tourists flocked instead to the more modern and popular beach resorts of the nearby Florida Panhandle. "The Strip," as the stretch of U.S. 90 through Biloxi had come to be known, offered only gaudy tourist traps, seedy motels, and a few restaurants, renowned for their seafood but dumpy in outward appearance. As the 20th century entered its final decade, the city fathers felt that something had to be done to revitalize the city and allow it to compete with Pensacola, Destin, Panama City and other western Florida beach resorts for the lucrative tourist trade.
Founded in 1699 by Pierre LeMoyne d'Iberville, who also explored southern Louisiana and whose brother, Sieur de Bienville, later founded New Orleans, Biloxi was once the capital of the French colonial holdings on the Gulf Coast. Over the next century the flags of France, Spain, England and the United States would fly over it. In the mid-1800s, Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis took up residence there in a mansion he called Beauvoir; French for "beautiful to see"—and it was. Beauvoir was a popular tourist attraction until it was heavily damaged by Katrina.
Prior to the legalization of gambling in Biloxi in the early '90s, gambling occurred nonetheless, along with other vice crimes such as prostitution and drug trafficking, surreptitiously in the back rooms of sleazy strip bars and motels. These activities were well known to the police and city officials, but were unofficially sanctioned and protected. The city's well-heeled, predominantly Baptist and Roman Catholic citizenry voiced outrage over these activities going on along "The Strip," but their protests amounted to little or nothing. As long as these businesses generated revenue for the city's businesses—as well as for a few crooked officeholders' bank accounts—they were allowed merrily to go on operating. Among those outraged by this plethora of illegal activity had been Margaret Sherry.