GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - On Monday afternoon, a pile driver ceremonially hammered the first beam into the Gulfport Small Craft Harbor. A little more than a year from now, that one pile will spawn a new $17 million harbor, with 319 boat slips on the southern tip of the city.
Katrina obliterated the harbor. The storm ripped apart docks. And it dumped all sorts of debris on the floor of the yacht basin.
It took Gulfport more than three-and-a-half years to get FEMA's okay to rebuild the harbor. The ceremony to launch the recovery project is a day Gulfport boaters like Ray Polk say is long overdue.
"I was fishing for speckled trout today," Polk said while he was loading his boat onto a trailer.
He returned to shore before the rains came because the fish weren't biting. He knew his Memorial Day trip was likely the last time he'd have so much room to steer his vessel through Gulfport's hurricane damaged yacht basin.
"Long time overdue. Long time overdue," Polk reiterated.
Throughout the morning, outboard motors churned up the waters near the boat launch. Threatening skies hovered overhead. Yet the Gulfport harbor looked rather tranquil. But without boat slips, it also looked deserted.
Kevin Anderson appreciated the freedom he had as he sailed back to the boat launch. However, he said, "I'd much rather have to go around piers."
The piers disappeared after Katrina wiped them out.
City administrators cranked out a plan to redo the harbor. But getting FEMA to sign off on the concept took longer than anybody anticipated. However, just beyond the boat launch was the construction barge that will finally bring public boat docks back to Gulfport's shoreline.
Charles Breland spent Memorial Day on his boat.
"I'll be happy to see it," he said, referring to the boat dock construction.
Holiday boaters said they couldn't wait for the pile driver on that barge to restore the docks that Katrina destroyed. Cedric Jackson was at the harbor on Memorial Day.
"It's exciting. I'm glad to hear that," he said.
Breland hoped the plans devised by Gulfport would recapture with the city's waterfront lost.
"Maybe it will look better. They say it will. They say they're looking for better, maybe it will be," he said. "Time will tell."
Rebuilding the boat slips is phase one of a project that will give the entire Jones Park area a makeover. Phase two is adding a splash pad to the east side of Jones Park. City administrators expect that contract to be signed next month