Under trees behind Our Lady of the Gulf Catholic Church, tables of determined people wrestle bright red crabs, working hard to extract every last bit of sweet meat from the freshly boiled crustaceans.
It’s Crab Festival time in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
Before this three-day festival ends, visitors will down more than 6,000 pounds of crabs from Lake Pontchartrain and 13,000 pounds of shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico. They’ll stick around to hear the rippling notes of live zydeco, blues and country music, then climb onto carnival rides, including one called the Ring of Fire, which slings its occupants around a circular track and dangles them upside down long enough to make them wonder if eating all that seafood was such a good idea.
"It’s the biggest event we have here in Bay St. Louis," says festival director Tommy Elkins.
The event draws people from as far away as California and Massachusetts, who sample boiled crabs, fried crab claws, gumbo and red beans and rice cooked by volunteers at the church’s annual fundraiser.
"The best thing to eat? I’ve got to say the shrimp po’boys. That’s my booth," Elkins says. "But the boiled crabs are the most popular, and the New Orleans booth is very popular, too."
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept this town off its feet. Shops and homes were reduced to rubble, and tourism ground to a halt. Federal grants helped the city rebuild after the storm, but in September 2010 it was dealt another blow, in the form of the BP oil spill. Few tar balls actually washed up here, but tourists, fearful of oil-slicked beaches, vacationed elsewhere.
"It was the perception of bad more than physical damage," says Myrna Green, executive director of the Hancock County Tourism Bureau, headquartered in Bay St. Louis. "Nobody came to Mississippi or Louisiana because they thought it was so bad."
Four years later, Bay St. Louis, whose year-round population hovers around 10,000, is back.
Colorful umbrellas sprout up and down the city’s long beachfront, where families sculpt sandcastles and wade into the warm, shallow water. And, during Crab Festival weekend, the skies light up as people set off glittering pyrotechnics bought at nearby fireworks stands.
"We thought 2012 was going to be the real recovery year, but it’s turned out to be 2013 and 2014," Green says. "This is the year that what was there is mostly back — but we’ve also got new things. Everything is new and wonderful."
City tourism officials credit the city’s Magnolia Money program for part of that rebound. After the BP oil spill, officials applied for and received grant money from the Deep Horizon settlement to boost tourism. They distributed that money to tourists, in the form of "money" they could use at local restaurants and shops.
In 2012, the program applied primarily to visitors arriving on tour buses. The next year, any visitor from outside the area could get $20 in vouchers. This year, the amount dropped to $10 — still enough for a stash of cookies from Serious Bread, an organic bakery, or lunch for two at Sloppy Dogs, a hot dog joint.
To get Magnolia Money now, visitors must be at least 21 years old and live outside Hancock or adjacent counties. The vouchers are given out Monday through Friday and must be redeemed by the end of October 2014.
It takes about 10 hours to drive to Bay St. Louis from Austin. You won’t find clear, turquoise water here, because the town borders the latte-colored Mississippi Sound instead of the Gulf of Mexico a few miles away. But the water slopes gradually out from shore, and there are no currents or undertow, making it ideal for kids. It’s also great for fishing, tourism officials point out. And there’s nothing like cooking up a batch of shrimp from the shrimp dealer who parks a van on a city street corner.
Back at the Crab Festival, Steve Woodard, 49, waits in line to buy a beer. He’s been driving with his family all the way from Clarksville, Ark., for this event — and the fishing rodeo just across the bay in Pass Christian — for more than 20 years.
"I just love all the friendship and happiness and being here," he says. He’s even taught his kids how to eat boiled crabs. "They love it. I teach them that it’s a slow go but it’s really tasty."
The Crab Festival isn’t the only gig in town, either.
Artsy types can indulge in Second Saturday Artwalk, when downtown merchants hold a block party similar to what happens on South Congress Avenue in Austin the first Thursday of each month. In October, the city hosts the weeklong Cruisin’ the Coast car rally, during which more than 7,000 classic cars motor from city to city along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
"If you look at the community, even though it’s been rebuilt, it did not lose its quaintness. It’s not a skyscraper city. It’s walkable, it feels safe and outdoorsy and it’s close to the beach," Green says of Bay St. Louis. "It opens its arms to people."