Hurricane Katrina picked up several Gulf Coast casinos and hurled them hundreds of yards inland, crippling the region’s gambling industry for months and potentially even years.
At least three of the floating barge casinos in hard-hit Biloxi were tossed from their moorings by the storm’s 25-foot wall of water, their barnacle-covered hulls coming to rest up to 200 yards from the shore.
At the Grand Casino, the walkway visitors once took from the lobby to the poker rooms and blackjack tables was now an open hole into the bay. All the windows were blown out. The mast of a sunken sailboat stuck up from where the barge once was.
Gary Loveman, chairman of Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., the world’s largest gambling company, told CNBC the casino was “probably ruined.” Aerial footage showed the ravaged barge had washed ashore and landed on the other side of a busy highway.
“I think it will have to be cut into pieces simply to be moved out of there,” Loveman said.
At the Beau Rivage, Biloxi’s most opulent casino, the first and second floors were blown out. Mattresses, chairs and yellow insulation were in piles on the once-manicured landscaping.
Bernie Burkholder, president and chief executive of Treasure Bay Casino in Biloxi, told The Associated Press the casino was “a total loss” in excess of $100 million.
He estimated losses would be even greater at many of the other coast casinos. Statewide damage estimates were not available, and efforts to reach Mississippi Gaming Commission director Larry Gregory on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
The first two gambling floors at the Hard Rock casino were blown out by Katrina. The casino hadn’t even opened to the public yet — that was supposed to happen Sept. 8.
“We had worked hard to put this place together,” Hard Rock employee Debra Harville said as she surveyed the damage. “It was so beautiful. I don’t know what I“m going to do now. A lot of people ain’t got nowhere to go.”
An official with Harrah’s said the company’s Grand Casino Gulfport also was swept inland, and damage was comparable to its sister property in Biloxi. Video aired on television showed that the Copa Casino in Gulfport was likely destroyed.
Others along the Gulf Coast were more fortunate. Boyd Gaming spokesman Rob Stillwell said only one of its three properties in Louisiana, the Treasure Chest casino in a New Orleans suburb, had been affected by Hurricane Katrina, though damage information was unavailable.
Harrah’s New Orleans sustained “very little damage,” Loveman told CNBC. “We’ve been very fortunate there.”
JP Morgan gambling analyst Harry Curtis said Tuesday in a investor’s note that casinos in Biloxi could “either be severely or permanently impaired.”
The effect on the Mississippi economy could be severe. About 14,000 people work in the dozen casinos along the Mississippi coastline. Each casino has a land-based hotel.
The hurricane damage could cost Mississippi some $400,000 to $500,000 a day in lost gambling taxes. Last year, the state’s casinos generated $2.7 billion in revenue.
Loveman said his company intends to pay the 8,000 employees of the Grand Casino, Harrah’s New Orleans and the Grand Casino Gulfport for up to 90 days. All three properties closed Sunday before Katrina struck.