Miss. coast casino employees returning, still face challenges

Published 10:37 pm Saturday, September 9, 2006

Cynthia Smith remembers the horror her family endured when Hurricane Katrina’s flood waters rolled into their Gulfport home and turned her world upside down.

Smith and several family members — including her husband and 5-year-old son — swam through the turbulent waters in search of shelter. The group ended up on the second floor of a neighbor’s home. For 2 1/2 days Smith could only wait and wonder if she and the others would survive.

One year later, Smith was back at her sales job at the $10 Boutique, one of the many shops nestled in the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi. The casino, after extensive repairs, reopened on Aug. 29, the anniversary of Katrina. Smith has been employed with the resort since it first opened in 1999.

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“It feels like when we opened the first time,” Smith, now 47, said of the reworked $800 million resort. “It is like a dream.”

An estimated 15,000 gaming industry employees on Mississippi’s casino-dotted coast were without jobs immediately after the storm. With the reopening of eight casinos, nearly 13,000 are back at work, but many of them still face post-Katrina challenges, including housing.

Housing issues caused a group of protesters to gather across the street from the Beau Rivage’s reopening ceremony. The group held up signs and decried the lack of progress being made in providing affordable housing for low- and middle-income families as well as other lingering problems.

Some casino workers are still living in FEMA trailers and most must live in communities struggling to rebuild.

Smith was living in a FEMA trailer until late August and had just moved back into her home four days before returning to work. Her time away from the Beau was mostly spent waiting in lines to apply for federal aid and trying to rebuild her home.

“I realized that I’ll never take life for granted,” she said.

Sharon Brumley was among the 3,800 workers — 400 more than before the storm — that returned to work at the Beau. Brumley, 54, of Ocean Springs, said she went to check on the casino hours after the storm to see the extent of the damage.

“I just wanted to see if the Beau was still standing,” she said.

The building was intact from the outside, but water had destroyed the interior of the casino.

Brumley’s home survived the storm so she decided to accept a temporary assignment to work in Las Vegas at The Mirage, a sister casino also owned by MGM Mirage.

Returning to Mississippi in March, Brumley went back to work as a buyer in the Beau’s purchasing department. One of the first things that caught her eye was employees busy planting flowers in front of the beachside casino.

The Beau Rivage is known for its elaborate floral displays, with fresh flowers decorating the retail section of the building and spilling into the lobby of the 32-story hotel.

“I knew there that the new beginning was here,” Brumley said.

The Isle of Capri hotel and casino in Biloxi also has added employees since the storm. Opening on Dec. 26 with 1,356 workers — up about 200 from before the storm — the resort still has employees living in trailers.

Larry Kostmayer, 60, a beverage department stocker for the Isle, and his wife, lost 90 percent of their belongings during the storm. Six feet of water flooded their home in central Biloxi. The two now live in a FEMA trailer on their property.

Kostmayer remembers going to a distribution center set up by the casino at what was the company’s corporate office. The couple received food, clothing and bedding.

“Knowing that the Isle was taking care of us, that is the best thing that could have happened to us,” he said.

Kostmayer was back at work within a few weeks, which he thinks helped him deal with the storm’s mental effects.

“It took away a lot of just sitting around thinking about what you had to do and what took place,” he said.

The couple remain living in a FEMA trailer, awaiting word on whether they will be able to rebuild their home.

About 100,000 people are still living in government-issued travel trailers or mobile homes in south Mississippi.