But in the second-floor gambling parlor, an alternate, windowless reality is hermetically sealed from the devastation. The sound of power tools is drowned out by the incessant blooping of the slots. In here, nearly six months after the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, the good times are rolling.
The gamblers are back, and they are bringing huge amounts of money to this beaten coastline's most important industry.
FOR THE RECORD:
Mississippi casinos —A graphic in Saturday's Section A on Mississippi's recovering casino industry said Casino Magic in Biloxi planned to reopen within nine months. A decision on whether to reopen the casino has not been made.
"We've been here since morning, and I've already spent his $300," said Christine Pitsos of Pensacola, Fla., nodding toward her fiance, Robert Call, after a day on the gaming floor.
"We wanted to come here and spend our money and help support the local economy," Call said, straining to be heard above the din of the casino's crowded restaurant.
Since its introduction in Mississippi in the early 1990s, casino gambling has transformed this stretch of the coast, often called the "Redneck Riviera," from the object of regional jokes to a booming resort area. Then Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, destroying most of the waterfront casinos and shuttering the remainder. Some economists and tourism officials predicted that their comeback — if it occurred at all — would be slow going.
But the Isle of Capri and two other casinos resumed business in December, and since then have attracted thousands of visitors who have helped the gaming industry post surprisingly strong numbers. In January, the three casinos pulled in nearly $64 million in gross gaming revenue, according to the Mississippi Gaming Commission. The previous January, the total in Biloxi was $90 million — when the city had nine casinos in business.
State officials say a healthy casino industry is key to rebuilding the coast. But they're surprised that so many visitors have returned so soon.
"We are just flabbergasted," said Larry Gregory, executive director of the gaming commission. "It could be curiosity, or pent-up excitement from people who for several months have been unable to play. We do know that it's an economic gold mine right now."
Gambling has long been a contentious issue in Mississippi, and the debate over its legalization remains fierce. Supporters wanted their historically poor state to benefit from jobs and tax revenue that casinos could provide, but Christian conservatives fretted about the wages of sin.
So in 1990, the Legislature allowed casinos to open only on barges floating on the Mississippi River or in the Gulf of Mexico. The results were awkward and, some contend, ridiculous: Many of the gambling barges connected seamlessly with on-land hotels, and visitors were often unsure whether they were on the water or on land.
Despite the restrictions, the casinos became the region's economic powerhouse, employing 17,000 workers. In fiscal year 2005, the state collected $99 million in tax revenue from the casinos.
The floating barges proved disastrous when Katrina struck. Some broke from their moorings and surged across coast-hugging U.S. Highway 90, crushing homes and other buildings.
In October, the Mississippi Legislature changed the law to allow onshore casinos within 800 feet of the shoreline. The casinos got another boost when Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) helped them win federal tax relief to rebuild.
These changes helped persuade many of the large casino companies to return, said Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., president of the American Gaming Assn., a lobbying group.
Casinos including the Boomtown, Treasure Bay and Beau Rivage expect to reopen this year. Harrah's, which had casinos in Biloxi and nearby Gulfport, plans to build two mega-resorts here and is selling the Gulfport property to a competitor.
Gaming industry officials have been further encouraged by the January receipts, Fahrenkopf said, because tourists came despite the devastation. Instead of beachside charm, they confront a landscape that one local official described as "carpet-bombed."