MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Even before the hurricane, Mississippi's unemployment rate was one of the highest in the country, and many more jobs were blown away by the storm. So when the unemployment office in Biloxi, Mississippi, reopened this week, it drew a crowd. NPR's Scott Horsley was there.
SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:
Shawn Montiforte(ph) stands with her three children outside Biloxi's unemployment office, where she's come to apply for disaster benefits. Hurricane Katrina knocked a tree through her roof and drove a knife through the heart of this region's tourist economy.
Ms. SHAWN MONTIFORTE: Out of a job, out of my house. But we're going to start over, rebuild and do it again.
HORSLEY: That rebuilding will take time. Montiforte had a job lined up as a cocktail waitress at Biloxi's Hard Rock Casino, which was scheduled to open the Tuesday after Katrina hit. There's no word now when the Hard Rock or 11 other Gulf Coast casinos might reopen.
Ms. MONTIFORTE: They have no idea. They're assessing the damage, and pretty much everybody's just kind of waiting around to see what's going to happen. Some weren't even going to open back up.
HORSLEY: The head of the state's Employment Security Department lives in nearby Gautier and stopped by to help open the Biloxi office. Tommye Dale Favre says Mississippi has waived paperwork requirements and expedited processing to put relief checks into people's hands more quickly.
Ms. TOMMYE DALE FAVRE (Employment Security Department): Normally when there's any kind of disaster in Biloxi, we see a lot of the self-employed, the fishermen, and we will certainly see a lot of the casinos. That'll be--I imagine here, that'll be our biggest customer.
HORSLEY: The storm wiped out not only 14,000 casino jobs but thousands more in the surrounding businesses. Lori Dubas(ph) worked as a bartender across the street from several big casinos. She says the $210 a week she'll get from the state in disaster relief is nothing compared to what she used to make. Nevertheless, Dubas plans to remain in her flood-damaged home in Biloxi.
Ms. LORI DUBAS: I really don't want to, but you know--I mean, I don't know where we're going to get jobs at. You know, not just the casinos, the bars are gone. They're not hiring even, like, at McDonald's because they're laying off people and keeping the regular employees. I doubt if I'll get anything. I don't know. It's been a nightmare.
(Soundbite of debris cleanup)
HORSLEY: A front-end loader is still removing debris in front of the beachfront Isle of Capri Casino. But a few miles inland, the casino reopened its corporate offices this week. The Isle of Capri was Biloxi's first casino back in 1992. Spokeswoman Jill Haynes says the chain has deep ties to the community.
Ms. JILL HAYNES (Spokeswoman, Isle of Capri Casino): Isle of Capri is committed to Mississippi. We are the largest publicly traded company in the state of Mississippi, so we will do whatever we can do to stay in Mississippi, if that's feasible.
HORSLEY: The Isle's floating casino barge was badly damaged, but the adjacent hotel was largely spared. The company would like to move some gambling operations into the hotel, but that would mean relaxing state regulations that currently allow gambling only on the water. Not everyone here in the Bible Belt would welcome such a change, as illustrated by this local radio broadcast.
(Soundbite of radio broadcast)
Unidentified Woman: When the casinos came, they were dubbed the `savior of the coast.' Well, God's not going to put up with such arrogant blasphemy forever. Mississippi, you need to repent! Louisiana, you need to repent! And unless our coast and our nation turn from its wicked ways, much worse will come upon us.
HORSLEY: For those coastal residents who lost not only homes but jobs to the storm, much worse is hard to imagine. Scott Horsley, NPR News.