The glitzy, three-story floating casinos that define this adult waterfront playland were picked up and hurled as much as a mile onto streets and sidewalks when Hurricane Katrina came blasting through over a week ago. Some were split in half, their slot machines spilling out into the Gulf of Mexico as if Mother Nature had hit the jackpot.
The casinos that were responsible for the coastline's economic rebirth in the early 1990s have mostly been reduced to a tangle of broken rods and twisted metal beams, leaving 14,000 employees without jobs and the waterfront a colossal mess.
Most owners have said they are determined to rebuild the casinos, which look more like land-based buildings than barges. But the damage is so extensive and the shock of the events so stinging and fresh, rebuilding efforts are far from underway.
Tuesday, casino officials were escorting insurance agents through the wreckage, showing them the havoc Katrina wreaked.
"They are looking for what's salvageable," said Robert F. Kelly Jr., vice president of development and construction for Harrah's Entertainment, which owns Harrah's New Orleans, the Grand Casino Biloxi and the Grand Casino Gulfport. "They are not going to find much of that here."
Kelly leaned against his truck and looked at the 680-foot-long, 180-foot-wide floating casino barge he built 12 years ago, now marooned on a patch of grass a quarter-mile from its anchor. Inside, there are 2,500 slot machines.
The winds and the storm surge tore the barge off its mooring, which is 60 feet wide and 120 feet deep, and is filled with rebar and concrete.
"This is just unbelievable to me," Kelly said, surveying the exposed cables and metal beams. "I built this."
He said the barge would have to be cut into pieces, separated by parts, and recycled or put underground somewhere.
All 13 of the region's casinos in Biloxi, Gulfport and Bay St. Louis are closed, costing Mississippi $500,000 in gambling taxes every day, officials told the Associated Press. The state's offshore gambling industry provides $2.8 billion a year in revenue and $333 million in tax revenue, according to the American Gaming Association.
By Mississippi law, casinos must float and can be only along the Gulf Coast or the Mississippi River. In the past week, there has been talk of amending that law to allow land-based gambling.
In addition to bringing huge revenue, the barges have enticed game dealers, bartenders, entertainers, managers and other casino employees to move to the area for jobs. Each casino also has a land-based hotel with thousands of additional workers.
Craps dealer Cisco Avila, 38, moved three weeks ago from Miami to nearby D'Iberville for a job at the $235 million Hard Rock Hotel and Casino here -- which was supposed to open exactly a week ago, two days after the storm hit.
Its casino was turned into a mangled mass, and the hotel was flooded, its bright-purple windows punched out by the surge. Somehow, its enormous signature red, yellow and purple Hard Rock guitar in front of the hotel remained intact.
Instead of dealing cards, Avila was working Tuesday as a security guard to keep people off the property, "at a third of the salary," he said. Even though the Hard Rock is continuing to pay employees for an unspecified amount of time, he said, card dealers rely heavily on tips, as much as $30 an hour, to make their salaries. Some other casinos, such as the Grand Casino Biloxi, are paying employees for 90 days and are trying to relocate some employees to other locations owned by the company.
A 13-year veteran of the casino industry, Avila said he would stick around until the Hard Rock is rebuilt.
"I'm not going anywhere," said Avila, who estimated that the casino would be rebuilt and open within 18 months. "At least I know it can't get worse than this."
Down the street at the Casino Magic, employee Micah Joseph, 40, came by with friends to see the barge that had flown across the street onto land. Like Joseph, gawkers streamed on Casino Row constantly Tuesday, shaking their heads and taking pictures.
Joseph, who used to work the overnight shift cleaning the employee break room in the casino, lost his nearby home. "It's sitting out in the middle of the highway," he said.
He rode out the fierce winds and surge at home, and said he tried to save one of his disabled neighbors, but he was too late. Katrina took the neighbor with her.
Joseph said Mississippi and the casinos were not prepared for such an enormous storm. But the next time hurricane watchers say one is coming this way, Joseph has a plan.
"I know one thing, this won't happen again," he said. "As soon as I hear 'hur' -- I ain't even got to hear 'cane' -- I'm gone."