Casino Execs Withstand Katrina's Blow - - The News for South Mississippi

Casino Execs Withstand Katrina's Blow

Vanessa Johnson isn't sure how anybody could have found a picture of her family amid the hurricane debris at Grand Casino Biloxi.

"It's the only thing I have left out of there," she said while holding the framed picture. For now, it sits on a temporary desk, in a temporary office in Gulfport.

Johnson just got back in town. Right after the storm, Grand's special events coordinator transferred to Tunica, hundreds of miles from her husband. She needed a job. And that's where Harrah's sent her.

"It was very difficult," she said.

Her husband visited Tunica every weekend he could. She got back to Ocean Springs every six weeks. As soon as Harrah's announced Biloxi's reopening date, Johnson moved back home.

"I came running back," she laughed.

Johnson has the kind of recovery story casino executives like to emphasize. They met with the media on the eve of the storm's anniversary and discussed the state of south Mississippi's gaming industry.

Jon Lucas runs the IP.

"What better way to energize the community and the economy than to be operating and to be employing people," he said.

After the hurricane, the legislature allowed casino games on shore. Casino companies then made a commitment to reopen their properties and rehire their workers as quickly as possible. Lucas reopened the IP first. He took his gamble on December 22nd.

"We were unbelievably busy when we opened and it hasn't stopped since," Lucas said.

On the anniversary of Katrina, every casino is focused on the future -- on new plans to expand and enhance what they've already opened. And according to Silver Slipper's John Ferrucci, they're all confident that despite what the hurricane did a year ago, being in south Mississippi is a gamble worth taking.

"That just gives us all the hope and the inspiration to say things are changing, things are getting better," he said. "And this is a great sign that we're working in the sunshine on August 29th instead of heading for the hills."

Six casinos are open in Biloxi on the eve of the hurricane's anniversary. Number seven opens Tuesday when Beau Rivage unveils its hurricane renovations. On Thursday, the Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis becomes the eighth casino resort to put employees back to work.

by Brad Kessie

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