Image: Marlies Welty
Jae C. Hong  /  AP
Marlies Welty, a dealer at the Stardust Hotel and Casino, wipes tears at her motel room in Las Vegas after looking at photos of damaged houses and properties in Mississippi. The 41-year-old Katrina evacuee left Biloxi, Miss., with her two cats after the casino where she worked was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
updated 10/3/2005 8:36:22 PM ET 2005-10-04T00:36:22

By the time Hurricane Katrina departed, there was no reason for Marlies Welty to stay.

The storm had gutted the Biloxi, Miss., casino where Welty dealt cards. A dozen nearby gambling halls that might have offered work were destroyed or damaged. So Welty packed her bags, toted her two cats and headed for Las Vegas.

“Opportunity came knocking at 160 miles per hour,” says Welty, one of hundreds of Gulf Coast casino workers flocking to other gambling capitals in search of a paycheck. “It said: Go west, go west.”

Even as casino operators push to build new resorts in Mississippi, gambling sites around the country have begun hiring refugee card dealers, cooks, valets and security guards whose jobs were washed away by Katrina.

About 14,000 people worked in Mississippi’s coastal casinos. In New Orleans, 2,600 are out of work after the only on-land casino in the distressed city shut down. More workers could find themselves is the same predicament if seven casinos around Lake Charles, La., struck by Hurricane Rita, don’t reopen quickly.

Many workers say they can’t afford to wait.

“I don’t know if you’ve been broke. It’s not a good feeling,” says Welty, who landed a job at the Stardust casino on the Las Vegas strip. “I’m looking forward to a paycheck.”

The world’s two largest casino operators, Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. and MGM Mirage Inc., have promised to pay their out-of-work employees for the 90 days following Katrina. But the companies say they have not decided what they will do once that time ends. Harrah’s has put its top executives from the Gulf casinos on retainer, but says it has to make other decisions on payroll.

In the meantime, casino companies say they’re embracing the displaced workers and expediting hiring to fill out their ranks and provide some relief.

Image: Marlies Welty
Jae C. Hong  /  AP
Marlies Welty, center, deals cards at the Stardust Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
Already, Gulf casino workers have fanned out to Nevada, New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, Illinois and Connecticut. Louisiana and Mississippi properties that Katrina spared also have hired handfuls.

In Las Vegas, Harrah’s has hired more than 60 displaced workers for its casinos and five to 10 more arrive each day in search of jobs.

In Atlantic City, home to all of New Jersey’s casinos, officials are trying to cut through the red tape by issuing temporary licenses to casino workers who fled the Gulf Coast to find work.

“We want them to know that if casinos here are willing to hire them, New Jersey’s regulatory agencies will do everything they can to get these people working as quickly as possible,” Casino Control Commission Chair Linda Kassekert said.

Closer to home, the Hollywood Casino in Tunica County, Miss., has hired 18 people from Gulf Coast casinos.

“Typically we don’t see many applicants from the coast, but it has been building since Katrina,” general manager John Osborne said.

Finding luck
Milton Green, 32, was working at the Treasure Chest casino outside New Orleans when Katrina swamped the area. With the casino closed, Green drove to his brother’s house near East St. Louis, Ill. He applied with several casinos, including the Casino Queen, where he was quickly hired.

“They called me the same day I applied,” Green said. “We need it. I have to be working.”

At least 25 people have landed jobs at Missouri casinos.

“They’re all so desperate, they’re looking for anything,” said Mike Ryan, executive director of the Missouri Riverboat Gaming Association. “It’s always great to get someone with experience.”

Pinnacle Entertainment Inc., which employed 700 at its destroyed Casino Magic Biloxi, has transferred about 50 to its corporate offices in Las Vegas and its casinos in Louisiana and Indiana.

One of the workers, Russell Stokes, who works in information technology, says he and his wife, also a casino worker, have difficulty imagining a return.

“I think we’re done with the coast for a while ... we’re done with hurricanes for a while,” he said.

The neon glow of Las Vegas has proved to be a natural destination for many forlorn casino workers because of its strong economy and dozens of casinos, many of which are owned by MGM Mirage and Harrah’s.

Harrah’s had employed 8,000 people in its Biloxi, Gulfport and New Orleans casinos. MGM Mirage operated the Beau Rivage in Biloxi and employed 3,471 people.

MGM Mirage Chairman Terry Lanni believes it will probably take more than a year to repair the Beau Rivage, which withstood high winds but had serious flood damage. MGM Mirage hasn’t started rebuilding yet but the clean up has begun.

Harrah’s doesn’t know when it will reopen Harrah’s New Orleans, which survived intact. In Biloxi and Gulfport, Chairman Gary Loveman says it could take more than two years before permanent casinos are erected to replace the ones washed away. In the meantime, Loveman said Harrah’s could construct temporary casinos to ensure profits continue to churn in the region.

The rebuilding process got a boost Monday when the Mississippi Senate sent Gov. Haley Barbour a bill that would allow the coastal casinos to move a short distance onshore, giving them greater stability in future storms. The state had legalized casinos in 1990 but restricted them to the waters of the Mississippi River or the Gulf of Mexico.

In the meantime, casino workers like Marvin Shumate, formerly a valet at Harrah’s New Orleans, continue their exodus.

“Things are looking up,” he says. “I can’t complain. Las Vegas, this is the place to be for now.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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