- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2005

LAS VEGAS (AP) — By the time Hurricane Katrina left, there was no reason for Marlies Welty to stay.

The storm had destroyed the Biloxi, Miss.-based casino where Miss Welty dealt cards. A dozen nearby gambling halls that might have offered work were destroyed or damaged. So she packed her bags, toted her two cats and headed for Las Vegas.

“Opportunity came knocking at 160 miles per hour,” said Miss Welty, one of hundreds of Gulf Coast casino workers flocking to other gambling capitals in search of a paycheck. “It said: Go west, go west.”

Even as casino operators push to build new resorts in Mississippi, gambling sites around the country have begun hiring refugee card dealers, cooks, valets and security guards whose jobs were washed away by Katrina.

About 14,000 people worked in Mississippi’s coastal casinos. In New Orleans, 2,600 are out of work after the only on-land casino in the distressed city shut down. More workers could find themselves is the same predicament if seven casinos around Lake Charles, La., struck by Hurricane Rita, don’t reopen quickly.

Many workers say they can’t afford to wait.

“I don’t know if you’ve been broke. It’s not a good feeling,” said Miss Welty, who landed a job at the Stardust Hotel casino on the Las Vegas strip. “I’m looking forward to a paycheck.”

The world’s two largest casino operators, Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. and MGM Mirage Inc., have promised to pay their out-of-work employees for the 90 days following Katrina. But the companies say they have not decided what they will do once that time ends. Harrah’s has put its top executives from the Gulf casinos on retainer, but says it has to make other decisions on payroll.

In the meantime, casino companies say they’re embracing the displaced workers and expediting hiring to fill out their ranks and provide some relief.

Already, Gulf casino workers have fanned out to Nevada, New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, Illinois and Connecticut. Louisiana and Mississippi properties that Katrina spared also have hired handfuls of workers.

In Las Vegas, Harrah’s has hired more than 60 displaced workers for its casinos and five to 10 more arrive each day in search of jobs.

In Atlantic City, home to all of New Jersey’s casinos, officials are trying to cut through the red tape by issuing temporary licenses to casino workers who fled the Gulf Coast to find work.

“We want them to know that if casinos here are willing to hire them, New Jersey’s regulatory agencies will do everything they can to get these people working as quickly as possible,” Casino Control Commission Chairwoman Linda Kassekert said.

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