Some Miss. coast casinos reopen Thursday

JEFF AMY
August 31, 2012

BILOXI, Miss. (AP) — Six of the 12 casinos on the Mississippi Gulf Coast started reopening Thursday evening, with Hurricane Isaac having done little physical damage to the engine of the area's tourism industry.

Casinos and other business owners say they hope business might bounce back over the Labor Day weekend, giving them some revenue. Workers scurried to clean up at casinos and downtown Biloxi restaurants Thursday, with storm surge having receded from U.S. Highway 90.

The two casinos in Hancock County closed Monday, and the 10 in Harrison County were ordered to close Tuesday as Isaac was still in the Gulf of Mexico. Mississippi law requires the casinos to be over or near the water.

Island View Casino Resort in Gulfport and five casinos in Biloxi — Beau Rivage, Hard Rock, Isle of Capri, IP and Treasure Bay — opened Thursday evening.

Five others plan to open Friday, while the Silver Slipper in Waveland plans to open Saturday.

Robbie Daniel, 55, an industrial engineer, and his wife, Kathi, a retired teacher, live in a house on the Tchoutacabouffa River in Biloxi, and haven't left home since Tuesday. Their house is on stilts and was surrounded by chest-deep water.

Kathi Daniel saw online Thursday that casinos could be opening so they hopped in a kayak, paddled to their car on higher ground and drove to Island View in Gulfport.

"Tired of sitting there watching rain," she said, when asked why she decided to venture out.

Her husband nodded.

"When you're surrounded by water day after day it gets a little hectic," he said.

Thursday was back-to-work day in Harrison County — the Mississippi coast's most populous. Traffic flowed and restaurants and stores reopened, even though rain still squalled at times, many traffic signals weren't working and rivers continued to swell.

The other two coast counties could be slower to rebound. Jackson County was experiencing flooding driven by heavy rain, and storm surge was still receding Thursday in Hancock County.

Spokeswoman Jill Alexander said the Isle of Capri casino, which is furthest out on the point where Biloxi Bay flows into the Gulf of Mexico, hadn't been damaged. That's in part because the casino's building is 34 feet above the ground. Alexander said there was 18 feet of storm surge under the casino at one point.

"We are in cleanup mode and are just waiting for permission from the Mississippi Gaming Commission to reopen," she said.

The same cleanup was going on at Biloxi's other gambling halls.

Workers at the Hard Rock swept up waterborne debris that had settled on the lawn. At the Grand Casino, workers were pumping water out of a service level into a storm drain. At Boomtown, on Biloxi's back bay, a worker blew leaves out of the parking lot.

Mary Spain, a spokeswoman for the Beau Rivage, said a metal floodwall was assembled to prevent damage to the lowest level of the coast's largest casino.

There's some urgency to get the doors open. Coast casinos win more than $20 million from gamblers in even a slow week.

"Any time you have a holiday in a tourism area, it's a big weekend," Spain said. She said the casino would make sure people knew it was open to overcome the pictures of Isaac that have blanketed the news.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation still has to sign off on U.S. 90. Spokesman Michael Flood said crews were inspecting the highway Thursday, clearing sand and other debris and unclogging drains. He also said some traffic signals on the busy thoroughfare were not working.

James McGowan was part of a two-man Merchants Company crew that braved the storm Thursday morning to leave the food distributor's Hattiesburg base and make 10 stops at coast restaurants.

They were helping chef Nick Newman restock the Fillin' Station bar and restaurant in downtown Biloxi, blocks away from the coast's largest casinos.

Newman said he was pleasantly surprised to get the delivery, which would allow him to reopen Thursday. As he wrote the check for the delivery, McGowan's beer distributor also appeared.

Newman said he believed business could be good over Labor Day. "It depends on how many tourists come down here."

Workers were taking down the numbered boards on the windows at the nearby Half Shell Oyster House.

"If I had enough people who could come in, I could open right now," manager John Graham said.

He said the restaurant never lost power and would only have to throw out $500 worth of food that had already been prepared or went bad. He said that the restaurant also lost about $20,000 worth of sales from when business began tailing off Monday through lunch Thursday. He wasn't sure whether any of that revenue loss would be covered by insurance.

Graham was optimistic about making up some of the loss over the weekend though.

He said the Sunday before Labor Day is often a strong day, because no one has to work the next day.

"I expect everything to be as strong as normal," he said. "I've had 20 phone calls today asking when we open. There're a lot of power crews in town that are tired of sandwiches."

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Associated Press writer Holbrook Mohr contributed to this report from Gulfport.

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