year to the day after it was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina,
the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, Miss., is defying
overwhelming odds to reopen. It isn't serendipity or irony or
coincidence that the reopening is taking place on the anniversary
of one of the worst storms ever to hit the U.S. It is a matter of
"We couldn't think
of a better day to open," said Mary Cracchiolo, spokeswoman for the
resort, which easily rivals any in Las Vegas. "If we can get
something of this magnitude up and running in a one-year period and
have an opportunity to thumb our nose at the storm, it has to be a
strong message of hope."
To reopen on the
anniversary, Cracchiolo said, about 18 months of renovations and
repairs were crammed into less than 12 months.
Among other things,
the property has a "completely fresh, updated look." All of the
1,714 hotel rooms have been remodeled, and 32-inch, flat-screen TVs
and pillow-top mattress have been added, Cracchiolo
casino and its ringing slot machines of today offer a stark
contrast to the devastation that defined the spot a year
"From the exterior
after Katrina, it looked like it held up pretty well," Cracchiolo
said. "We had weathered a number of storms in the past. The
property opened in 1999, and our structure did what it was intended
to do: withstand hurricane winds."
Katrina was unlike anything the floating casino -- the entire
resort community, for that matter -- had ever
"We had a 24-foot
storm surge that basically reached the second story, [including]
the casino level and the restaurants," Cracchiolo said. "We had
about four feet of water in the main level. Imagine the whole
casino level with four feet of water everywhere."
were bleak. The Beau Rivage, as well as neighboring casinos such as
the Hard Rock, had suffered tens of millions of dollars worth of
weeks after the hurricane, MGM Mirage, which owns Beau Rivage,
pledged to rebuild the hotel, the largest employer in Biloxi. The
company seemed mindful of the symbolism that pledge
"With the opening
of Beau Rivage, we understand that we're not just putting 3,800
people back to work," Bobby Baldwin, president and CEO of Mirage
Resorts, said in a June statement. "We're helping to put 3,800
families back on their feet. This is one step, of many to come,
back to normalcy for our employees and our community."
In a sense, Beau
Rivage, considered the "crown jewel" of Biloxi, has come to
symbolize the city's recovery, even though that recovery has been
While much media
attention has been devoted to the reconstruction of New Orleans,
which suffered severe flooding due to levees that failed in the
wake of Hurricane Katrina, Biloxi, a city of about 51,000 people,
and the surrounding area arguably suffered a more direct hit from
smashed into Biloxi on Aug. 29, 2005, ferocious winds kicked up
storm surges of up to 30 feet, wiping out or moving just about
everything in its path.
The combined force
of wind and water lifted some casino barges from their moorings and
pushed them across U.S. Highway 90.
While most of New
Orleans' infrastructure remained comparatively intact, about 90% of
the buildings along the coast of Biloxi, about 65,000 in all, were
washed away by the storm, which also claimed 53 lives.
In its wake, the
storm strewed more than two million cubic yards of
At the time, Mayor
A.J. Holloway described Katrina as "our tsunami," alluding to the
killer wave that had decimated parts Southeast Asia nine months
Today, in addition
to Beau Rivage, five of the city's other casinos are back in
operation. And more are returning.
In fact, there is
so much development taking place in Biloxi that Stephen Richer,
executive director of the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors
Bureau, is predicting that Biloxi will emerge from the devastation
as the country's top gaming destination outside of
"There are new
casinos, new condos, new golf courses, new marinas, new
subdivisions, new airport expansion, new convention center
expansion. It is incredible," he said.
The new development
has been spurred in part by a change in the city's statutes, which
now permit casinos to be built on land. Previously, they had to
float on barges.
significant because it changed the investment climate," Richer
said. "It changed the insurability [of properties]. With the
casinos off the barges and on land, the chances of them being
destroyed as they were by Katrina went way down."
Wall Street and
other financial institutions took notice. Now, Donald Trump is
planning to build a casino, and Foxwoods has picked Biloxi as the
site of its first casino resort outside of Connecticut.
"I think people are
looking at the profile here in terms of visitors, and they think
this is a good place to be because it has Nevada-style taxation and
regulations," Richer said. "The gaming industry is thriving, and a
lot of things are coming with it, including more shopping centers.
We also have a whole boom of condo-hotels. Before the storm, we had
about five or six dozen proposed projects. Now we have four dozen.
It is pretty dramatic.
"I would argue,
based on my experience, that we were already on the path to become
the second-most important destination with gaming."
all rosy in Biloxi
While the future
seems promising, the city still faces significant
Soon after Katrina
cut a destructive swath through Biloxi, David Kong, president and
CEO of Best Western International, toured the area to review the
damage to the city and to Best Western hotels.
Visiting the area
again nearly a year later, Kong said he was surprised by how much
work still needed to be done.
"When I came [the
first time], I was sad but filled with hope that we were going to
help these hotels rebuild and be even better than before," he told
Travel Weekly. "This time, I came back and I felt sad, and I felt
helpless. There are so many things that are not within our control.
If you look at the beach area, it used to be so vibrant. It was a
happening place. Now, there is nothing going on, aside from the
casinos. All of the homes are gone. All of the businesses are gone.
It is just scary to look at it."
Of the 10 Best
Western hotels in the Biloxi area before the storm, only five have
so far managed to reopen.
"They have had a
hard time settling with the insurance companies," Kong said. "It is
at the crux of the matter there."
Even though Katrina
packed winds strong enough to lift floating casinos out of the
water and toss them onto roads, "the insurance companies are
[contending much of the storm damage] was caused by water, not
wind," said Kong, scoffing at the claim.
With no money
coming from insurance, Kong said that it is expensive to
For the Best
Western Seaway and other hotels fortunate enough to have already
reopened, business has been good, though many recent occupants have
been construction workers and others involved in rebuilding the
rooms are locals who are still unable to rebuild their
Until February, the
hotel was housing employees who had lost everything in the storm,
said Rosie Lowe, general manager of the property.
Best Western Seaway
made news even before Katrina hit, when the city aquarium arranged
to place two dolphins in the hotel's pool for safekeeping during
the storm. The dolphins survived and went on to entertain guests
who had also sought shelter at the hotel.
Lowe said Best
Western Seaway has operated with a skeleton crew for months. Many
other businesses find themselves in the same position.
"We would only
clean the rooms every other day because we didn't have the staff to
do it," Lowe said.
And with the
casinos like the Beau Rivage reopening, the competition for workers
is becoming intense, Low said. That is also a positive sign of
"We feel a bit more
optimistic now," she said.
While Biloxi still
has far to go in its recovery, there is a growing sense that the
CVB's optimism is justified.
"We're confident in
the future of the Biloxi market," George Corchis, Beau Rivage's
president and COO, said in a statement.
"We believe the
Mississippi Gulf Coast has the potential to become a top travel
destination by 2010."
reporter Mike Milligan, send e-mail to[email protected].
" IP Hotel &
Casino: Damaged by Hurricane Katrina, it was the first of Biloxi's
casinos to reopen after the storm. It now has 956 refurbished hotel
rooms, 1,900 slot and video poker machines, 54 table games, a new
16-table poker room, restaurants, and nightclubs.
" Boomtown Casino:
Located in Biloxi's Back Bay, this casino has 1,000 new slot
machines, 22 table games and a 350-seat restaurant.
" Isle of Capri
Casino Resort: In addition to 900 hotel rooms and suites, the
casino offers 1,100 slot machines, 27 table games, a new poker
room, a spa, a pool and a restaurant.
" Palace Casino
Resort: With 800 slot machines, 14 table games and a restaurant,
this resort is anchored by 234 hotel guest rooms.
" Grand Casino
Biloxi: The resort features 500 hotel guest rooms, 800 slot
machines, 20 table games and a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf
To contact reporter
Michael Milligan, send e-mail to
" Island View
Casino Resort: Slated to reopen in September.
" The Hard Rock
Casino: Opening is scheduled for July 2007.
" Hollywood Casino
Bay St. Louis: This resort, previously known as Casino Magic Bay
St. Louis and now under new ownership, is accepting reservations
for an Oct. 1 opening. Some features of the resort, such as the
Bridges Golf Club, are currently undergoing renovations.
" The Silver
Slipper Casino: Opening is slated for October.
" Bacaran Bay
Casino Resort: Owned by the Torguson Gaming Group, this $500
million resort will feature 680 all-suite hotel rooms, 432
condominiums, a 40-lane bowling alley and an Arnold Palmer golf
course. Opening is slated for fall 2008.
" The Broadwater:
Encompassing two casinos, a 1,900-room hotel, 3,375 condominium
units, an 18-hole golf course, 585,00 square feet of
retail/entertainment space, a 125,000 square-foot gaming floor and
104,000 square feet of convention space, this $1 billion project is
backed by Foxwoods, marking the casino operator's first venture out
" Golden Nugget: A
site in Biloxi's Point Cadet area was acquired by Landry's
Restaurants, owner of Golden Nugget hotels in Las Vegas and
Entertainment: The Casino Magic Biloxi property, located near the
Grand Casino Biloxi, has been acquired by Harrah's, which intends
to invest $1 billion refurbishing it.
" Isle of Capri:
This resort operator has plans for a $300 million, 500-room
property in Harrison County.
" Trump: In
partnership with the Diamondhead Casino Corporation, Trump
Entertainment Resorts will develop a 40-acre resort on the Bay of
St. Louis near Diamondhead.