Gaming industry braces for another hurricane season - Sunday 12th of June 2005

Tourists traveling crowded U.S. 90 along the casino-dotted Mississippi Gulf Coast are greeted by a towering video screen outside the Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino - flashing neon images of upcoming events and scenes of summer sun and inviting waves.

While the depiction reflects the lazy rolling waves that splash onto the 28-mile manmade beach most of the year, the inviting waves can churn into an angry rolling surge during hurricane season and chase gamblers, and their dollars, to higher ground.

Officials with the 12 casinos, whose gambling operations are, by law, limited to anchored barges while their hotels and other attractions are on solid ground, say they are prepared for the foulest storms but are hoping for the best.

"We know that it would be devastating," said Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. "It is a significant number money wise when the casinos are closed, just for a very short time.

"So we are very concerned if a catastrophic event were to take place, the amount of money that would be lost. It would be significant if such an event would take place."

For every day the casinos are shut down due to a hurricane or tropical storm, the estimated economic loss is up to $450,000 day, Gregory said.

Casinos closed last year due to the threat of Hurricane Ivan, costing them to lose about $10 million. In 2002, 14,000 people were out of work and millions of dollars of damage and lost revenue were reported from Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lili.

To prepare casinos for the upcoming storm season, Gregory said the commission has met with casino officials to educate them on the latest safety information, in case of any catastrophic event. The meetings focus on how to get people and workers out of the casino and hotel safely and how to best secure the gambling barges to ride out the wind and waves.

"The structure itself is very secure by the pilings," Gregory said. "We are concerned with the signs, anything that is not attached to the casino permanently."

The order to close the casinos along the coast comes from Gregory, who stays in contact with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and the Harrison County Civil Defense during storm threats.

"As long as a casino is still open, there is going to be people who don't want to evacuate. They'll think it's safe," said Lea Stokes, MEMA spokeswoman.

Stokes said she was especially impressed last year when the approach of Ivan from the Gulf of Mexico, prompting a mandatory evacuation of the coast at 4 p.m. She said casinos closed at noon to ensure their employees and other patrons were headed to safety.

"It's not a specific science predicting where a hurricane will go. They knew that and they were extremely responsible in going ahead and closing. Better to lose a day or two of business than to take a chance on them losing a lot of lives inside those buildings," Stokes said.

To make sure the staff is prepared for a hurricane, the Beau Rivage holds classes onsite to instruct personnel on safety methods.

"They've got this down to a science," said Mary Cracchiolo, spokeswoman for the Beau Rivage.

In addition to onsite courses, Cracchiolo said the company also has a readiness plan that is set to secure the property from damage from a potential storm. Stages of the plan include, removing pool chairs and other items outside of the casino and evacuating nonessential personnel from the grounds.

"There is a number of things we do proactively to try to be the best prepared that we can be and that involves continually updating and modifying our plan," Cracchiolo said.

To keep in touch with employees, Cracchiolo said phone number lists for employees are updated yearly and a special hot line, based out of state, is set up for employees to call to find out when they need to return to work after a hurricane has forced the casino to close.

The Beau Rivage suffered damage to its marina in 2002 when Isidore pounded the coast. Cracchiolo said the marina area was without water and power.

The Isle of Capri Casino and Resort in Biloxi has also been spared major storm damage in recent years. Rich Westfall, the casino's senior director of marketing, said the casino has experienced minor damage, including damage to the outside of the building and water blown under sliding glass doors of the balconies of the building.

Though a direct hit by a major storm could pose obvious threats, Westfall said that even when a storm hits another portion of the coast, business is affected.

"It's not necessarily the direct hit that sometimes can affect you," Westfall said. "It's those that barely miss and go into neighboring markets that disrupt their normal day to day and obviously affects casino traffic here."

The Isle also holds onsite training for employees to help prepare staff for the storm season.

While minor damage has been the norm for most casino, Treasure Bay Casino's pirate ship vessel has been in danger of sinking since opening in 1994. Bernie Burkholder, president and CEO of the Biloxi casino, has advocated moving the casino to a manmade basin after the structure sustained more than $30 million in damages due to storms. Representatives from Treasure Bay declined to discuss their problems.

Gregory said after a hurricane hits the coast, he personally views the damage done to the structures to decide when they can reopen.

"I will go up and down the coast and look at the damage and then I'll go back to the civil defense headquarters and talk to the appropriate safety officials and then I'll decide when it is appropriate to reopen," Gregory said.

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