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Biloxi bets on casinos to speed rebuilding

Hurricane Katrina destroyed 70,000 homes along coastal Mississippi and more than a quarter million in Louisiana. A year later, analysts say there are things Mississippi has done right -- putting the state a little further down the road to recovery.
/ Source: CNBC

Hurricane Katrina destroyed 70,000 homes along coastal Mississippi and more than a quarter million in Louisiana. A year later, analysts say there are things Mississippi has done right -- putting the state a little further down the road to recovery. 

Here in Biloxi, Carl Wilson's reconstruction still has a ways to go -- nearly a year after Katrina destroyed his home. He's used his savings and tapped into his church volunteer network to rebuild... and that's put him ahead of most of his neighbors in Biloxi.

“I think being proactive is very important,” he said.

And Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, says Wilson, has been proactive, too.

“I think his past connections, being a lobbyist in the past, has really helped getting the government off its keister,” said Wilson. 

Mississippi secured $4 billion in federal funding in December, months ahead of Louisiana, though the first grant checks are just now going out. 

“When that money starts to hit the ground, I think you'll see a more significant building both particularly in new home construction and repairs than we've seen today,” Brian Anderson, deputy director of Mississippi's Office of Recovery and Renewal

But the state's most important move may have been a new law allowing the casinos build on land.

“They put together different connections and different studies and everyone is working together,” said Chet Harrison, marketing director of the Boomtown Biloxi Casino. “And I think you're going to see a lot more development of the area.”

Along Biloxi's devastated casino row, rebuilding is in full swing. Four of the area's 12 casinos are back in business; five more expected back by New Year's. Gaming operators are expected to pump $5 billion into the economy on reconstruction and expansion.

With new legislation allowing them to actually build on land, rather than just operate on barges, the expectation is that the number of casinos here will double in the next five years.  

And that, say local economists, will mean a whole new ballgame for the region.

Carl Wilson and his neighbors are hopeful the change will be for the better.

“Truly a hurricane is actually financial boom,” he said. “People don't see it that way at first but it becomes that way.”