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And I'm Renee Montagne.
A year ago this morning, Hurricane Katrina was battering the Gulf Coast. Along the coast of Mississippi, a booming casino business was destroyed, taking with it an important source of revenue and jobs for the state.
Today, the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino reopens in Biloxi. It's the seventh casino to reopen in recent months. This week we're following the money trail in the aftermath of the storm, in a series Katrina: Where Did the Money Go?
Today we're focusing on the role of private money. NPR's David Schaper reports on how the casino industry is driving the recovery in Biloxi.
DAVID SCHAPER reporting:
It's been a quick year. That's Biloxi Mayor AJ Holloway's first thought as he reflects on what Hurricane Katrina's harsh winds, rains, and 30-foot storm surge did to his city a year ago today.
Mayor AJ HOLLOWAY (Biloxi, Mississippi): What I saw at that time, you know, was just kind of hard to believe. But people just walking around in a daze, didn't know where they were or what they were doing, crying. Going down the beach and seeing the casino barges across Highway 90. I never would have thought we would be where we are today.
SCHAPER: While Biloxi still has years of rebuilding, its recovery is way ahead of other Gulf Coast communities devastated by Katrina.
Mayor HOLLOWAY: I think the biggest, most single event that has allowed the city of Biloxi to recover as quickly as we are is the event of on-shore gaming.
SCHAPER: That was a change in state law approved by Mississippi's legislature and governor just weeks after the storm ravaged the coast. It allows casinos that had been restricted to barges on coastal waters to rebuild on land within 800 yards of the shore. Both the state and the city of Biloxi had a lot riding on getting the casinos to rebuild.
Biloxi took in $20 million a year in gambling revenue - more than a third of the city's budget. And the state lost a half a million dollars in tax revenue each day Gulf Coast casinos remained closed. The law changed lead casino companies, such as Harrah's, MGM Mirage, Penn National and others to invest billions on the Mississippi Coast. And in order to reopen quickly, they've set up slots and other games in what had been their hotel lobbies, banquet halls, and conference rooms.
Mr. MACK JONES(ph): I was just so glad they came back; it gave us something to do in the evenings. And thank goodness for the casinos.
SCHAPER: Mack Jones of nearby Ocean Springs is an almost daily visitor to Biloxi's Boomtown Casino.
Mr. JONES: I'm retired. You can only stand so much of the television.
SCHAPER: The hurricane wiped out many other entertainment options on the coast, so the casinos have been cashing in since the day they reopened.
Mr. TED HARRISON(ph) (Marketing Director, Boomtown Casino): It's more than twice what it was.
SCHAPER: Boomtown's marketing director Ted Harrison says business has doubled in part because with fewer casinos open, they're getting a bigger share of a strong gambling market. According to the Mississippi Gaming Commission, gaming revenues on the Gulf Coast jumped 15 percent from June to July. And for several months now, the handful of casinos reopened in Biloxi have been pulling in 75 to 80 percent of the revenue that a dozen coastal casinos made before Katrina.
And it's not just that the old market is back. Harrison says there are new players, and many are betting more money because they're earning more since Katrina. Players like construction worker Fred Merrill(ph) of Mobile, Alabama.
Mr. FRED MERRILL: I hate that the storm did it, but it's great.
SCHAPER: Wages are good?
Mr. MERRILL: Yes, sir.
SCHAPER: And do you end up spending a little more here?
Mr. MERRILL: Well, you know, it's, you hit pretty good. You've been hitting pretty good since the storm. But you spend more because you make more, you know? You have extra money to spend, so you come out and just enjoy yourself.
SCHAPER: And it's not just construction workers in the area making more money. Casino employees themselves are cashing in.
Ms. SHANTEA JOSEPH(ph): Nothing pays like the casinos. The casinos pay good. The benefits, the insurance, the everything. The atmosphere is totally different.
SCHAPER: Shantea Joseph of Biloxi is at the Beau Rivage Casino and Resort's employment center just outside of town. She's just been hired as a slots rep. Other new hires fill out paperwork and get photographed for ID badges, while dozens of job seekers fill out applications and wait for interviews.
Joseph worked at a different casino before Katrina, but she's moved up to the Beau because workers are in high demand.
Ms. MARIE KLAZOWSKI-TWIGGS (Employment Manager, Beau Rivage Casino): It's an employee's market right now. They can kind of pick and choose where they want to go.
SCHAPER: Beau Rivage employment manager Marie Klazowski-Twiggs says many people who lost their homes have left the Gulf Coast, leaving the casinos and other employers scrambling to fill thousands of jobs, and paying more in wages and benefits as a result. Jobs that used to pay $7 or $8 an hour now pay $9 to $11. Positions that had paid $15 an hour are now around $18 or above.
Ms. KLAZOWSKI-TWIGGS: The competition's getting a little tough out there, especially with experienced workers.
SCHAPER: To retain workers and induce loyalty, more casinos paid employees for a few months after the hurricane and continued benefits even though they weren't working. Some are now helping employees find places to live, one of the biggest problems Biloxi and other coastal communities face.
With so much housing destroyed along the coast, affordable places to live are at a premium. For some, the higher wages are being eaten up by skyrocketing rents and the cost of longer commutes.
Spurred by the new onshore gaming law, most of the casinos are planning to become full-service resorts with spas, entertainment and other amenities that they hope will draw more visitors from outside the region.
Mayor HOLLOWAY: And that's what we want. We want the better quality casinos and the $500, $600 million projects.
SCHAPER: Biloxi Mayor AJ Holloway anticipates a casino-building boom that makes his city, already the third largest gaming market behind Vegas and Atlantic City, even more of a national destination.
Mayor HOLLOWAY: And I think that Biloxi, within the next 5 to 10 years, will have anywhere from 18 to 22 casinos.
SCHAPER: The booming casinos are spurring other kinds of investment in Biloxi, too. High-rise beachfront condominiums are going up, some of them planned even before the storm but many more since. Some residents quietly call what's happened in Biloxi and unfortunate opportunity, tragic in the damage and loss of life, but a chance along the beachfront in particular to build a new Biloxi. Some worry, though, that the cost to this new Biloxi will be much of old Biloxi.
Is there a delicate balance there?
Mr. BILL STALLWORTH (Biloxi City Council Member): There's a very fine and very delicate balance.
SCHAPER: City Councilman Bill Stallworth represents a big part of old Biloxi, East Biloxi, in a neighborhood known as Point Cadet, home to many of the city's older, poorer and minority residents.
Mr. STALLWORTH: As we get to start looking at casinos and high-rise, high-price condos, there's a very fine balance that has to be maintained between the development of those structures and the community. This is a poorer community, and what happens if we get too much of that type of development, people simply are going to lose out.
SCHAPER: Here, Stallworth says, the money for recovery isn't flowing downward. The billions being invested by the casinos haven't made it any easier for folks here to rebuild their homes and mom and pop businesses. Most were uninsured or underinsured. Promised government grants of up to $150,000 to rebuild haven't come in yet, and nobody's sure exactly who will get how much or when.
The rebuilding that is going on is being done by charities. Without them, Stallworth says, there'd be no rebuilding in this part of Biloxi at all.
David Schaper, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And some residents fear what will happen to Old Biloxi. You can read about it at npr.org.
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