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Recovering From Katrina: Back to Business in Biloxi5 September 2006
By Howard Stutz
BILOXI, Mississippi -- Hung Vu never considered himself a construction worker, but a year away from his job as a blackjack dealer at Beau Rivage made the Vietnamese immigrant pretty good with a hammer and nails.
Vu, who honed his dealing skills on the Atlantic City Boardwalk and brought them to Mississippi's Gulf Coast in 1999, was one of Beau Rivage's original dealers when Mirage Resorts opened Biloxi's largest hotel-casino in March of that year.
Dealing was put on hold for 12 months, however, when Hurricane Katrina's 135-mph winds and accompanying 30-foot storm surge damaged or destroyed 13 Gulf Coast casinos on Aug. 29, 2005.
While Beau Rivage was being rebuilt, Vu spent the time away from the casino caring for his children while his wife found work at a hair and nail salon. He also learned to make repairs to his wind-damaged home. Vu used that construction experience to help friends and family rebuild and repair their hurricane-damaged homes.
Leaving the Gulf Coast was never in the cards.
"I came down here originally to visit relatives in February (of 1999) and I really liked the area," said Vu, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1981. "I found a job with the Beau right away. I knew I'd be here when we reopened."
On Tuesday morning, Vu was back at his blackjack table a year after the hurricane. MGM Mirage spent $550 million to reopen the property's 1,740 hotel rooms and 85,000-square-foot casino and put 3,800 employees back to work.
When Penn National Gaming reopened the former Casino Magic as the Hollywood Casino on Thursday in nearby Bay St. Louis, 1,000 more casino workers were back at their jobs.
Mississippi Gaming Commission Executive Director Larry Gregory said about 13,000 employees have been rehired by the casinos since the gambling halls began reopening last December. Prior to the hurricane, the gaming industry employed more than 17,000 on the Gulf Coast.
The work force will continue to grow this month when 800 workers are employed at Island View Casino in neighboring Gulfport, which will be on a portion of the former Grand Casino. A second phase planned in the next few months will add another 700 employees.
Housing the workers, however, remains a challenge.
Gov. Haley Barbour said 70,000 homes in three Gulf Coast counties have to either be rebuilt or replaced, a challenge for any state, especially Mississippi. The Gulf Coast, he said, has never built more than 2,800 homes in one year.
Barbour said the state still hopes to obtain more temporary housing units from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"We're looking at many different solutions, but people are willing to drive from a little farther away because these are good paying jobs," Barbour said.
But it's not just the casinos that are looking for workers, the governor said.
"We have a shipyard industry that needs to hire about 800 workers," Barbour said. "We had three shipping companies that moved here from New Orleans because (hurricane recovery) here is so much farther ahead."
Isle of Capri Casinos President Tim Hinkley said it wasn't hard to find casino employees when his company's flagship property reopened in December, even with two competitors reopening at the same time.
As more casinos reopen and expand, the market for workers will grow tighter.
"Housing makes it tough. We were able to find 600 to 700 loyal people right off the bat so it wasn't hard to put a staff together," Hinkley said. "I'm sure MGM Mirage will tell you the same thing, even with hiring 3,800 people. It's going to stay challenging as long as housing remains an issue."
Harrah's Entertainment, which reopened the Grand Casino Biloxi Aug. 18 with 1,500 employees, gave its returning workers incentives, such as a service bridge, which allowed an employee to pick up their years of service to the company where they left off on Aug. 28, 2005, when the casinos shut down before the storm.
Grand Casino Biloxi General manager Karen Sock said Harrah's had 5,000 displaced casino workers in Mississippi because the storm destroyed two of the company's casinos. More than 95 percent of the Grand's new workforce had one to 13 years experience with Harrah's.
"This is a group of people who are dedicated to this community and want to see it grow and return better than ever," Sock said. "We had an experienced and knowledgeable group to pick from."
Sock said 50 percent of the Grand Casino's employees spent the past year either working for another Harrah's casino or another gaming company. About 25 percent took jobs in other fields until the Grand reopened while the rest stayed home and rebuilt their hurricane damaged lives.
MGM Mirage executives said they rehired about 60 percent of its former Beau Rivage staff.
Security guard Sardie Canaan, an original Beau Rivage employee, never left.
He was at the casino three days after the hurricane to help secure the building from potential looters and to help company officials in the recovery efforts.
Canaan, whose East Biloxi home was severely damaged in the storm, was one of a handful of Beau Rivage workers who remained on the payroll over the past year.
"I helped open the property originally, I helped close it before the storm, I protected it after the storm and I helped to reopen it once again," said Canaan, who was recognized in comments by MGM Mirage executives during last week's reopening ceremony.
"I feel very close to this property and I'm glad it's been rebuilt," Canaan said.
While Canaan's work life is now stable, his housing future remains in question.
Like other Biloxi residents, Canaan is having trouble settling with insurance companies to recover the losses on his home. Meanwhile, he's received overtures from the Boomtown Casino, which is trying to buy several East Biloxi sites for future development.
"I want to see what happens with my insurance before I do anything," he said.
Marie Klosowski-Twiggs, manager of employee services, said many of the returning Beau Rivage employees were able to secure housing during the past year, either by repairing storm damage to their homes, taking up residence in a FEMA trailer or living with family members.
Klosowski-Twiggs, who helped meet employees' needs after the storm and helped rehire many of the workers, saw spirits uplifted once the casino's opening date became clearer.
"From Day One, everybody has been so amazing," she said. "It's been such a tough year and reopening gave us all something positive."
Sock saw a similar reaction with Grand Casino employees. Knowing the past year has been stressful for many, the casino brought aboard two full-time clinical psychologists to help workers cope.
"Reopening provided normalcy and sense of routine to people's lives, in addition to a regular paycheck," Sock said. "We know our employees are still struggling, so opening our property and providing jobs is good step toward recovery."
For Sharon Brumley, a buyer in the Beau Rivage purchasing department, the past 12 months have been far from normal.
After the storm, she left her family in Biloxi and spent six months employed at The Mirage. She returned to the Gulf Coast to rejoin Beau Rivage's purchasing department before the opening.
Her family stayed in Biloxi to repair their home, and Brumley's paycheck helped.
"It was tough leaving my family behind, but we're back on our feet," Brumley said. "I liked living in Las Vegas, but this is my home."
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Recovering From Katrina: Back to Business in Biloxi is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.