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Katrina alters lives, gaming industry forever

MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST – When you drive along Highway 90 headingeast from Gulfport toward Biloxi, the carnage is breathtaking.While we have seen photos of the damage in the wake of Katrina,until you see it in person, one cannot fully appreciate whathappened that August morning six weeks ago.

Many a summer day in my youth was spent along the Gulf Coast. Afavorite spot for my brothers and me was the fishing pier near theGulfport Municipal Harbor. Today, save the pilings that once heldthe pier, nothing is left. The White Cap Restaurant that served theharbor is gone. At the aquarium, also a favorite haunt, now littlemore than a shell remains. The porpoises, no doubt grandchildren ofthe ones I once watched, thankfully were saved but little elseremains – except memories.

Driving along the beach road, all the beautiful old homes aregone! Most of the majestic Live oak trees that guarded the entranceto these once-historic homes still stand, but little remains behindthem. The historic character of the beach highway has been washedaway.

Looking out over the gulf, where the world’s longest manmadebeach stretches for miles, one sees that it now can lay claim asthe world’s longest swath of rubble. Once-cherished personalproperty, family mementos and keepsakes are strewn for as far asthe eye can see.

Almost haunting are the remains of the Treasure Bay Casino.Built to look like a pirate’s ship, it now truly is a sunken ship,stranded on the shore as might be described in a romanticnovel.

At one point along the drive, rising out of the rubble, I cameupon a high-rise condominium under construction. Not a window wasbroken, and work crews were busy working as if Katrina had neverhappened – quite a contrast to everything else around it and atestament to new, quality construction.

Following Hurricane Camille in 1969, the coast slowly builtback, but for the next 20 or so years, Camille’s scars andreminders of her fury were everywhere. The tourists who onceflocked to the coast in the 1950s and ’60s moved farther east toAlabama and Florida beaches. While the Gulf Shores and Destin areasboomed, the Mississippi Gulf Coast just survived.

It was just in the last 15 years that the coast really began tocome back economically, tourists flocked the area and acondominium-building boom that has taken over the Florida andAlabama coastline in the past two years was just beginning to hitthe Biloxi and Gulfport areas. Katrina brought everything inMississippi to a stop, but in Alabama and Florida the boomcontinues.

That development on the coast, of course, is centered around asingle industry – gambling. Like it or not, approve or disapprove,the fact is, the gaming industry put the economic life back intothe coast that Camille took away 21 years earlier.

This past week, the Legislature in a very close vote, passed thenecessary legislation to restart the coast gambling industry byallowing land-based casinos, but only 800 feet from the shore.

Allowing the casinos on shore, however, has created a $7.5million dollar economic boom to the gaming industry and threateneda loss to the state from state tideland leases that will be voidedwhen the casinos move on shore. Finding ways to replace those lostfunds this week resulted in a lengthy stalemate and politicalmaneuvering which threatened to kill the onshore gambling bill.

Although passed by both chambers, the onshore gambling bill was,for several days, held hostage – away from the governor’s desk -until the tidelands lease issue was solved.

In the end, the Senate and House came to a solution agreeable toboth lawmakers and the governor. The state’s coast casinos willcontinue to put money into the tidelands fund, assuring the statecontinued revenue there.

Life was so easy in those youthful carefree summers days in thelate 1960s. Like Camille in 1969, Katrina blew away those days fora new generation of carefree youngsters as the hard realities oflife are quickly being learned.

In the Legislature, Katrina’s aftermath is teaching morerealities – that without the gambling industry, the MississippiGulf Coast could find itself like it did following Camille – justsurviving!

Write to Bill Jacobs at P.O. Box 551, Brookhaven MS 39602,or send e-mail to bjacobs@dailyleader.com.