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BILOXI, Mississippi -- When she read that Beau Rivage, the Gulf Coast's largest casino, would be reopening Tuesday, Barbara Hunt extended her vacation in Jacksonville, Fla., by a day before heading home to Houston.
The lure of more than 2,100 new slot machines was hard to resist and Beau Rivage is just a short detour south from westbound Interstate 10. Besides, Hunt said, another coastal casino that been her favorite place to play was last seen a year ago floating down Highway 90.
Apparently, thousands of other casino patrons had similar thoughts.
Beau Rivage reopened Tuesday morning after a $550 million renovation and exactly one year after Hurricane Katrina destroyed or heavily damaged 13 casinos along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Chairs in front of the casino's slot machines and gaming tables were filled minutes after customers were welcomed. It didn't take long for the first jackpots to hit.
The scene was a stark contrast from the day Hurricane Katrina roared across the Gulf of Mexico and slammed into the Mississippi Coast with 135-mph winds and an accompanying 30-foot storm surge.
That wasn't lost on gamblers such as Hunt, who has been visiting the Gulf Coast for three decades. The advent of casino gaming in 1992 gave her another reason to regularly revisit Biloxi and neighboring Gulfport.
"Once I saw that it was reopening, I knew I had to be there," said Hunt while waiting for a slot-machine attendant. "I love coming to Biloxi and the Gulf Coast. I couldn't wait to be back."
Hunt, however, will have to do without one of her favorite places. The floating barge that housed the President Casino, which was west of Beau Rivage along Highway 90, was washed about a mile down the road and was subsequently demolished this year by salvage crews.
Beau Rivage's barge, solidly moored in the Gulf of Mexico, was damaged but salvageable. Construction crews gutted the property, allowing MGM Mirage to remodel the 85,000-square-foot casino and renovate the property's 1,740 hotel rooms.
With updated restaurants, more amenities and a complete redesign to the public areas, Beau Rivage, welcomed back 3,800 workers, about 60 percent of whom worked previously at the casino.
"It's phenomenal because we were able to make this property more customer friendly and give it a much more comfortable feel," said Beau Rivage President George Corchis, his voice raspy after a long morning welcoming back guests. "We did a pep rally a couple of days ago and all our employees attended. You could both see the excitement and feel it in the room. People were happy to be coming back to work."
About 100 Beau Rivage workers took part in a symbolic march up the driveway to the casino's front entrance, cheered by MGM Mirage executives, fellow employees and customers. Casino officials said they wanted to celebrate employees coming back to work.
"I've already seen a lot of familiar faces and our longtime customers," said Beau Rivage security guard Sardie Canaan, who has been employed by the casino since its original opening in 1999. "It's great for the community that we're back."
MGM Mirage Chairman Terry Lanni said from the moment he and Mirage Resorts President Bobby Baldwin first visited Biloxi in the days following Hurricane Katrina, it was never in question that the Las Vegas-based company would rebuild the resort.
Baldwin, however, told workers he wanted to reopen the property on the storm's one-year anniversary.
"We met with people at the emergency center and they were so vibrant and so committed to this community, that Bobby and I realized we needed to get the board (of directors) to support this rebuilding," Lanni said. "Bobby was more comfortable about setting the deadline than I was."
Longtime customers flooding the casino floor found their slot club player cards still active. Their accumulated points, built up before Aug. 28, 2005, the last day the casino was open, were still in effect.
For Gladys Mentillo of Indian Harbor, Fla., the Beau Rivage served as her monthly gambling getaway before the hurricane. She spent the past year visiting casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, but joyfully came back to Biloxi Tuesday, remarking that she "was happy to be home."
Buster Nordmann of Mobile, Ala., said it takes a bit longer to drive into Biloxi, since the Highway 90 bridge that connected the casino peninsula with Ocean Springs, Miss., was washed out in the storm and won't be rebuilt until next year.
He said he didn't mind the extra travel.
"It's really unbelievable what they did in here," Nordmann said. "It was nice before, and they made it even better."
The joy in the casino, however, was tempered a few hours earlier when Biloxi citizens remembered the 51 city residents who died in the storm. In southern Mississippi, more than 230 people died during Katrina.
During an hour-long memorial service on the Town Green, a few blocks east of Beau Rivage, members of Mississippi's congressional delegation, Gov. Haley Barbour, Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff thanked the hundreds of volunteers who participated in the city's recovery.
The ceremony was highlighted by a low flyover during Lott's speech by a "hurricane hunter" airplane out of Keesler Air Force Base.
Holloway, who was credited by many of the speakers for spearheading the city's recovery, said the ceremony was important to recognize the residents who died and the volunteers who helped in the relief efforts."
"The memorial was special and we felt we needed to do that for the city," Holloway said. "It's just absolutely huge for the community that Beau Rivage has reopened and 3,800 people have returned to work. A lot of people had left the city to go to other places, so it was important that we get them back here to their jobs."
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