Mississippi coast casinos could reopen Thursday evening, with Hurricane Isaac having done little physical damage to the engine of the coast's tourism industry.
Casinos and other business owners say they hope business might bounce back over the Labor Day weekend, giving them some revenue. Workers scurried to clean up at casinos and downtown Biloxi restaurants Thursday morning, with storm surge having receded from U.S. Highway 90
The Mississippi Gaming Commission will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday, and is likely to vote then to lift its closure order, allowing the 12 coastal gambling halls to turn on the slots.
"We have targeted to have all back in operation by noon tomorrow (Friday)," Allen Godfrey, the commission's executive director, told WLOX-TV. He said casinos could reopen at different times depending on their "unique circumstances."
Thursday was back-to-work day in Harrison County -- the Mississippi coast's most populous. Traffic flowed and restaurants and stores reopened, even though rain still squalled at times, many traffic signals weren't working and rivers continued to swell.
The other two coast counties could be slower to rebound. Jackson County was experiencing flooding driven by heavy rain, and storm surge was still receding Thursday in Hancock County.
Spokeswoman Jill Alexander said the Isle of Capri casino, which is furthest out on the point where Biloxi Bay flows into the Gulf of Mexico, hadn't been damaged. That's in part because the casino's building is 34 feet above the ground. Alexander said there was 18 feet of storm surge under the casino at one point.
"We are in clean-up mode and are just waiting for permission from the Mississippi Gaming Commission to reopen," she said.
The same clean-up was going on at Biloxi's other gambling halls. Workers at the Hard Rock were sweeping up waterborne debris that had settled on the lawn. At the Grand Casino, the barriers were still blocking entrances to the parking garage, but workers were pumping water out of a service level into a storm drain. At Boomtown, on Biloxi's back bay, a worker was blowing leaves out of the parking lot.
"We would like to open later tonight or tomorrow, depending on the Mississippi Gaming Commission," said Mary Spain, a spokeswoman for the Beau Rivage. She said a metal floodwall was assembled to prevent damage to the lowest level of the coast's largest casino.
There's some urgency to get the doors open. Coast casinos win more than $20 million from gamblers in even a slow week.
"Any time you have a holiday in a tourism area, it's a big weekend," Spain said. She said the casino would make sure people knew it was open to overcome the pictures of Isaac that have blanketed the news.
The Mississippi Department of Transportation still has to sign off on U.S. 90. Spokesman Michael Flood said crews were inspecting the highway Thursday morning, clearing sand and other debris and unclogging drains. He also said some traffic signals on the busy thoroughfare were not working. Flood said highway officials weren't sure when the road would reopen, or if they would reopen it in sections.
James McGowan was part of a two-man Merchants Company crew that braved the storm Thursday morning to leave the food distributor's Hattiesburg base and make 10 stops at coast restaurants.
They were helping chef Nick Newman restock the Fillin' Station bar and restaurant in downtown Biloxi, blocks away from the coast's largest casinos.
Newman said he was pleasantly surprised to get the delivery, which would allow him to reopen Thursday. As he wrote the check for the delivery, McGowan's beer distributor also appeared.
Newman said he believed business could be good over the Labor Day. "It depends on how many tourists come down here."
Workers were taking down the numbered boards on the windows at the nearby Half Shell Oyster House.
"If I had enough people who could come in, I could open right now, manager John Graham said.
He said the restaurant never lost power and would only have to throw out $500 worth of food that had already been prepared or went bad. He said that the restaurant also lost about $20,000 worth of sales from when business began tailing off Monday through lunch Thursday. He wasn't sure whether any of that revenue loss would be covered by insurance.
Graham was optimistic about making up some of the loss over the weekend. He said the Sunday before Labor Day is often a strong day, because no one has to work the next day.
"I expect everything to be as strong as normal," he said. "I've had 20 phone calls today asking whewhen the front driver's-side tire blew out. The bus struck a guardrail and rammed directly into a concrete bridge support pillar. The crash remains under investigation.
Taylor has a clean driving record, authorities said. According to the accident report, he was issued two citations for administrative issues unrelated to the accident. One citation was for failing to keep his driver's logbook current, and the other was for "an incorrect sticker."