Katrina +10: All Bets are Off…

Katrina +10: All Bets are Off... (Image 1)

This summer will mark ten years since Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.

And perhaps no industry was changed more dramatically by the storm than tourism.

Namely, gambling.

In part two of our series looking at the effects of Hurricane Katrina, Jacob Kittilstad takes us back to the time that all bets were off.

Play a hand at a the IP Casino Resort and Spa and there’s a chance you’ll walk away with some cash.

But it’s nothing compared to the billions of dollars the Mississippi gaming industry brings in every year.

In 2014 alone in the coast city of Biloxi (not counting other cities), it took in about $829 million dollars in revenue.

That’s comparable, if not slightly lower, than pre-Katrina numbers.

“Certainly the casino product that’s here today is much nicer than the casino product that was here back in those days,” Duncan McKenzie, vice president and general manager of the IP, said.

“Since Katrina we’ve rebuilt this place pretty dramatically. We are no longer floating. We’re actually on pilings. All the restaurants and guest rooms have been improved and renovated,” McKenzie said.

Step back for a moment and remember that before hurricane Katrina gambling was done on the water, on barges, or on an infamous cruise to no where.

Members of a recent this panel who worked directly with casinos during those early years reflected on those times.

Former Chairman of the Mississippi Gaming Commission Jerry St. Pe said he remembers how hurricane Katrina changed everything.

“I was on a helicopter flying across the coast…and I was sitting next to Tom King who was a highway commissioner now but at the time was with the state house of representatives,” St. Pe said.

“And when we crossed the bay heading West and spotted the gaming barge from Grand Hotel sitting North of the highway I said ‘Like it or not, we have land based casinos in Mississippi’,” St. Pe said.

“Revenue in August, the last month before the hurricane, was about $150 million just here on the gulf coast,” St. Pe said.

“And course, as we all know, it was zero in September. Zero in October. Zero in November. So the consequence of this industry not coming back was pretty severe,” St. Pe said.

The legislature acted relatively quickly by allowing casinos to come on shore 800 feet. And, as important, developers committed money to build.

“Because we were more in the back bay we had more of a rise of the water. The casinos that were actually on the gulf had that 30 foot wave that came and hit them. So you can imagine the the damage that occurred was very different for different casinos,” McKenzie said.

“From a tourism destination standpoint and a casino destination standpoint, the coast is doing very well today,” McKenzie said.

The best money-making year for casinos in Biloxi was *actually* 2007 – two years after Hurricane Katrina’s but also after casinos were brought ashore.

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