Place, Erased: Is this Mississippi community really a ghost town? It depends on who you ask
This story is part of a series from the Gulf States Newsroom called Place, Erased. Reporters traveled to communities in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana that have been transformed by major environmental shifts. You can read other entries in the series here:
- Place, Erased: How a drowned Alabama town still holds lessons 60 years later
- Place, Erased: The fight for the remains of a Louisiana town
Clermont Harbor, a small town in Hancock County, sits right on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. That means when hurricanes come, it’s usually taking the damage head-on.
The community has been obliterated by hurricanes enough times that, on paper, it looks like a ghost town. A local historian wrote about its potential death in 2019, and the Hancock County Historical Society says it no longer exists.
But tell this to the crowd at Harold and Lillian’s, a Clermont Harbor bar that customers say is the epitome of “Cheers,” and you’ll get an impassioned rebuttal.
It’s a Tuesday morning, and regulars walk into the bar, giving a rousing good morning that wakes another one of the patrons who claims he’s trying to sleep. It’s not even noon, after all.
Bartender Melyssa Owens said these folks have been there since bright and early.
“They call themselves the Breakfast Club,” she said. “They're here waiting for me every day. Now they know to come in at 8:05 or 8:10 because I'm not going to be here at 8.”
Michele Easches, a regular at Harold and Lillian’s, said no matter how many storms come, this nearly 80-year-old dive bar builds back.
“The first places that are open are the bars and the churches,” Easches said.
Owens provides an easy explanation.
“Because your whole life is torn apart. You need to pray and you need a drink. Bottom line,” she said.
The history of Clermont Harbor
Clermont Harbor is unincorporated, meaning if someone moves here, their address probably says Bay St. Louis — the nearest neighboring town. While that area is expanding, Clermont Harbor residents, like Lolie Kull, worry newcomers don’t understand the town’s history in a way that will keep it alive.
“There are people that just don't even know anything about Clermont Harbor that are still here,” Kull said.
Kull sees Clermont Harbor as a wonderful place to live. She moved here after Hurricane Katrina, and she volunteers at the Ground Zero Museum in nearby Waveland. The museum is dedicated to remembering Hurricane Katrina and the history of this whole county.
At the museum, Kull tries to share bits of the town’s history through anecdotes and landmarks — like the fact the town once had two grocery stores: Garcia’s and Ladner’s. She said they sold the same things, like beer and canned foods, but there was a major sense of brand loyalty among residents.
“Everybody that went to Garcia’s didn't go to Ladner’s. And everybody that went to Ladner’s didn't go to Garcia’s,” she said. “It was kind of funny.”
She also talks about going to her favorite snowball stand, and of course, Harold and Lillian’s – just one street away from where she now lives.
“I’ve been known to dance on the porch, listening to the music from Harold and Lillian’s,” Kull said.
But Kull also likes to include personal stories in her history lessons.
She remembers spending time at her family’s camp as a little girl, walking down the long wooden pier into the waist-deep water and fishing for crabs.
Clermont Harbor is also where she met her future husband.
“He had a blind date. And he came to see me in Clermont. And here we are,” she said.
The impact of hurricanes
But not everyone thinks Clermont Harbor has avoided the label of being a ghost town.
“Some people might think Clermont Harbor is flourishing, but I don't,” said Florence Jordan, a former resident.
Driving through Clermont Harbor, Jordan sees places that were once neighborhoods that are now covered in bushes and overgrown shrubbery. She grew up here, and she’s lived through a lot of storms, like Hurricane Camille in 1969. She had just turned 17 when her family tried to ride the Category 5 hurricane out and remembers the moment when Camille’s 24-foot storm surge found its way inside their home.
“They’re trying to put rags and towels at the door to keep the water out. And it just kept coming in,” Jordan said.
Her family ran upstairs.
“We go back into the attic and we're sitting there and we're waiting and we're praying,” Jordan said. “We waited all night long until morning came.”
Camille killed hundreds of people in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, and it did a lot of damage. After that storm, Jordan and her family decided to leave Clermont Harbor and moved a few miles away to Waveland. Her uncle had an old house that her family was able to move in right away, and she was glad to move away from the painful experience.
“I get upset when I start talking about it,” she said.
Hurricane Camille is just one of many storms that have eroded the spirit and structure of the coastal town over time. Each successive storm has made it harder and harder for the community to bounce back.
When Hurricane Katrina blew through in 2005, it took a direct hit.
“Katrina came along and just totally destroyed my home, my brand new home,” said Jimmy McGuire, a lawyer who’s trying to retire.
In 2005, McGuire had just finished building his dream home in Clermont Harbor. He didn't even have time to hang anything up on his home's walls when Katrina barreled into the coast. After evacuating, he returned to staggering destruction — nothing but concrete slabs and rubble.
“The Gulf of Mexico was filled with cars, trees, homes,” McGuire said.
Many in the community said it felt like everyone else forgot about Clermont Harbor after Katrina. They have stories of pulling bodies out from under the rubble on their own and building makeshift shelters. Most of the attention went to bigger areas, like New Orleans, while small towns like theirs took care of themselves. McGuire said rebuilding was slow. It took years to rebuild a nearby road that led to the beach.
But while the chaos of hurricane season after hurricane season caused many to leave, McGuire chose to stay, eventually building the modular home he still lives in now.
“I can hear the waters, the waves from the waters and the birds singing and doing what they're doing,” he said. “I see the blue herons and the eagles flying over in the afternoon, going to their nest, and it's just such a beautiful place to live.”
'It's all generations of families here'
Today, McGuire says Clermont Harbor is growing faster than ever. If you drive through the area, you’ll see that every house is hoisted high above the ground on stilts. They have to be, to deal with future hurricanes.
“I welcome you to drive around this street,” McGuire said. “You won't get lost, but then you'll see what new homes are being built.”
To Melyssa Owens, Clermont Harbor is a thriving community. It has families whose legacies go back to the town’s founding. Even today, it still has a Fourth of July parade.
“We have a better parade than New Orleans,” Owens said. “We have our own parade every year and it's epic.”
Harold and Lillian’s also hosts regular charity drives around Christmas time. Each year, a Santa Claus gives local kids — the next generation of Clermont Harbor residents — exactly what they want for Christmas. That’s why Owens believes Clermont Harbor will never fade away.
“We're all related. So it's all generations of families here,” Owens said.
More hurricanes will surely come — but weathering the storm together is a key part of Clermont Harbor’s identity. And just because a place is no longer officially on the map, doesn’t mean it's abandoned.