JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Nearly nine years after Hurricane Katrina left much of south Mississippi in ruin, Hank Holmes looks back at the deadly storm as a test of Mississippi's commitment to historical preservation.
Holmes is retiring next year after what will be 42 years at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the last nine as executive director. The Winona native joined the department in 1973. He oversaw the archives and library division from 1988 to 2004. He became agency executive director in 2005.
Much has been achieved under Holmes, said Kane Ditto, chairman of the archive agency's Board of Trustees and former Jackson mayor.
Accomplishments include an electronic records section that serves as a national model; expansion of efforts to preserve Mississippi American Indian history; the Eudora Welty House and Garden, and now the Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Ditto said.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was overseeing a $26 million historic preservation grant program in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to repair ravages historic properties.
"I think it was the biggest task we have ever undertaken. We had staff going down there for days and weeks to survey the damage to historical sites — and that's when there's was no place to stay, no place to eat. The staff was carrying meals with them and working long days and driving back," Holmes told The Associated Press.
"But we were able to save structures that nobody thought could be saved and we were able to restore documents that a lot people thought were lost," Holmes said.
Katrina devastated public archives charged with protecting important documents — not only historic treaties and photographs, but many more mundane yet critical modern documents like birth and death certificates and car titles. Katrina destroyed about one-fifth of Mississippi Gulf Coast buildings that had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places — about 300 were obliterated and 1,200 were still standing.
The heaviest toll was along the beach, where the hurricane's brutal winds and 30-foot storm surge washed away many homes that predated the Civil War. Beauvoir, the final home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, survived on the Biloxi beachfront, but it was heavily damaged.
The agency used funds to restore the Old Spanish Fort in Pascagoula, Turkey Creek in Gulfport and grand homes on Pass Christian's East Scenic Drive.
The Old Spanish Fort is a French colonial structure also called the Pointe-Krebs-La Pointe Home. Initially, the agency spent $250,000 to stabilize the circa-1718 structure wracked by hurricane winds and swept underneath by surge.
The Turkey Creek community was founded by freed slaves more than a century ago. It includes what was in 2006 a 120-year-old church. In Pass Christian, the agency allocated $100,000 to save the 1928 Pass Christian Colored School, now known as the Randolph School.
Holmes also said the founding of two new museums — one that tells the history of the state, the other its civil rights struggle — is dear to him.
"We are able to tell history not presented before. Our theme is 'One Mississippi.' There are many stories to tell and we are trying to reflect the variety of faces across Mississippi history," Holmes said.
Holmes said the museums are scheduled to open during the celebration of Mississippi's bicentennial in December 2017.
During a 2013 groundbreaking, officials said the side-by-side museums will tell an unflinching and thorough story of Mississippi, including its complex history of race relations and its roles in the Civil War and the civil rights movement.
The Museum of History will tell the story of Mississippi from its pre-Columbian past, its evolution as an agrarian region with the arrival of the first European settlers and its emergence as a diverse manufacturing center.
The Civil Rights Museum will chronicle the decades-long struggle of African-Americans for such basic rights as voting and the enjoyment of previously "whites only" public accommodations.