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Revival of the Renaissance in Biloxi, Mississippi

The Story of a Town, an Industry, and One of its Employees as They Fight to Return from Hurricane Katrina

Before Aug. 29, 2005, the town of Biloxi, Mississippi, was experiencing a renaissance.

Ever since Harrison County, Mississippi, the county in which Biloxi sits, legalized casinos in 1990, which led to the first casinos in Biloxi opening in 1992, the number of visitors to the city has boomed. Now, nearly 10 million visitors a year visit the town, and Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway estimates that over a third of the city's revenue is generated from gaming, revenue the city has used for investments in schools, education, and infrastructure. Biloxi, a city that had not commissioned a new school since 1960, has built four since 1990.

With over 10 casinos, Biloxi jumped to the third-largest gaming destination in the nation, trailing only Las Vegas and Atlantic City. The $800-million Beau Rivage, a casino owned by MGM/Mirage, was one of the casinos that played a large part in the success story. When the resort opened in 1999, it was the single largest investment in Mississippi's history.

Hurricane Katrina memorial Enter Hurricane Katrina. The storm caused more than $81 billion in damage and claimed more than 1,800 lives. Everyone witnessed its destruction, most of us through the media, but unfortunately for most Biloxi residents, they witnessed Katrina with their own eyes. It is hard to walk around the streets of Biloxi, even two years after the storm, and not happen across a conversation with a local person that doesn't turn to the topic of the storm. Katrina has become their antagonist, their darkest hour, their rallying cry.

Total Destruction

When the storm hit, everything in Biloxi changed. Over 6,000 out of 25,000 structures in the city were destroyed. The area hit hardest was Point Cadet, where many of the casinos were located and where many were eventually decimated. The 24-foot storm surge enveloped the Beau Rivage. Although the superstructure of the mega-resort held, the casino as a whole was destroyed. Every one of its 4,000 employees was out of a job.

One of those employees was Dominick Gaeta, the assistant director of food and beverage at the resort. Gaeta was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. He drove an hour and 10 minutes each way to work at the Beau Rivage. His house is located in St. Bernard Parish, one of the hardest-hit areas during the storm. The now infamous community was hit by the eye wall of the hurricane, and several levy breaches left the area completely flooded. Gaeta's home was left in five feet of standing water for more than two weeks after the storm. To make matters worse, oil tanks ruptured in the parish near his home, which polluted the flooded water.

"I had everything taken away from me … the American dream, the house, the car, the boat; just when everything had been paid for … now, everything is totaled," said Gaeta.

He wasn't alone. Countless others were forced to board up their homes and evacuate. He chose to move in with a close friend in Bossier City, Louisiana, five hours north of New Orleans. The storm's devastation of the Gulf Coast was over; it was now time for rebirth and recovery.

Helping Hands

An example of the damage caused by Katrina The storm devastated the Gulf Coast. Fortunately, the gaming industry was able to help the community get back on its feet, both with the initial emergency relief and with the long-term community rebuilding. Many casinos, including the Beau Rivage, aided the community in doing just that.

The immediate need was for simple survival items; food, water, and toiletries were in high demand. "The casinos, right after the storm … they gave food from their freezers, they gave full truckloads to the city," said Mayor Holloway. The Beau Rivage was one of those casinos.

"We basically set up a recovery center," said Mary Cracchiolo, public relations director at the Beau Rivage. A Red Cross Resource Center was established on the premises, as well, after a partnership with the Red Cross was formed.

The Beau Rivage helped its employees recover, as well. Full salaries were paid for three months after the storm, and every employee was guaranteed his job back when the property reopened. Out-of-state health insurance costs were waived, and employees were given jobs during the interim at other MGM/Mirage properties around the country. Many of the employees of MGM/Mirage from around the country helped their co-workers on the Gulf Coast, as well. After the company deposited $1 million of seed money into a relief account, employees were encouraged to donate, with the stipulation of a dollar-for-dollar match from the company. In the end, $4.1 million was raised.

A Quick Rebuild

The old Biloxi Port Commission building, which now features a gaping hole and wreckage The decision to rebuild in Biloxi was almost as instantaneous as the initial relief efforts. For example, an aggressive timetable was established to rebuild and reopen the Beau Rivage within one year. That meant four months for cleanup and eight months to rebuild. The resort also had to bring back the personnel that gave the Beau Rivage its human touch and the hospitality for which the area of the country is renowned.

One of the employees guaranteed his job back was Gaeta, and when the Beau Rivage called in February, he was ready.

"When I first got back … one of the first things we tried to do was reach out and call everybody, just to see how they were doing … there's more of a family here … more of a personal touch going on," said Gaeta. He had worked at a construction company in Bossier City for a few months after the storm. He and his wife then moved in with one of the guests he had met at the Beau Rivage. She offered to put them up in Marrero, Louisiana, and he accepted the generous offer in order to be closer to his home in New Orleans and closer to his old job at the Beau Rivage. He quickly got involved with the rest of the management staff that was reaching out to the employees of the Beau Rivage at the time, making sure they were all right and helping them return to work.

On average, a hotel project the size of the Beau Rivage takes 18 months to complete. Over $550 million was invested into reopening the hotel, and it came back bigger and better on the one-year anniversary of the storm.

"This is like getting a second chance to make a first impression," said Cracchiolo, "because we're the largest employer, and we put 4,000 employees back to work. We're putting 4,000 families back on their feet."

The town was battered and beaten, and even today, still recovering. But the casino industry has given the community a huge financial boost.

"I don't know where we would be without the casinos. I think we would be in really, really bad shape," said Mayor Holloway.

Everyone knew that the casinos were the lifeblood of the town, from longtime business owners to brand-new residents, including Gaeta, who relocated to an apartment in Biloxi at the time of the casino's reopening.

More hurricane-ravaged landscape in Biloxi "Look around, there's not a whole lot to do on the Gulf Coast other than the casinos," said Gaeta. "At the Beau Rivage, it was important to get back online and give an option, to put people back to work and get things going. That's really the stimulus the environment needs, because it's wiped out."

Today, the casino industry is not only back, but it's going to be bigger and, perhaps, better than ever in a few years time. This is thanks to new legislation that made it legal for casinos, which before had to be built on barges, to now be built 800 feet inland for safety. Katrina swept many such barges from their moorings and deposited them far from their original embankments.

"If the trend continues as it's going now, we will do more than a billion dollars in gross revenue, just in the city of Biloxi," said Holloway of the new casino industry. "I'm predicting that in 10 to 15 years you're gonna see anywhere from 18 to 22 casinos in Biloxi."

If the mayor's prediction holds true, Biloxi will be the second-largest gaming destination in United States.

As the town looks to the future, it also knows that some things will never be the same, that some of the scars will never be forgotten. Gaeta still has no idea what to do with his home in St. Bernard Parish, so he is still holding on to the property with the hope of one day selling it at a reasonable price. (Unfortunately, the value of his home depreciated by three-fourths after the storm.)

"It's a challenge every day," said Gaeta.

He is comfortable in his Biloxi apartment, but he doesn't know when he will be able to afford a new home in the area. The combined forces of FEMA rulings about which elevations residences can rebuild on, as well as the combination of rising prices in insurance, construction, and real estate, have effectively priced residents out of certain areas of Biloxi.

"Inside, you go through this," said Gaeta. "If you live through this, there's nothing you can't handle … whatever's in my way, it's not going to stop me."

Hard times breed resiliency among the strong willed, and like any tragedy, Katrina brought out the best and worst of human nature. The looting that took place after the storm is one example, and the local papers on the Gulf Coast still report about insurance fraud prosecutions stemming from Katrina. But the storm also brought a community together and showed how big business can help a small town to get back to its feet.

"One positive, for sure, was the humanity that came to the forefront," said Gaeta, sitting in a back office at the Beau Rivage two years removed from the storm. "So many people - out of heart, out of soul - just stepped up and helped everyone. You talk about the best in people; it actually got better than the best in people."