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updated: 11/4/2012 12:21 PM

Storm-weary gamblers reappear as Atlantic City casinos reopen

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By Steven Church

Todd Parker sat at one of only two roulette tables open in the almost-empty Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, putting Hurricane Sandy out of his mind as he tried to add to his three stacks of dollar chips.

"I want to get enough to build a big wall and a moat I can hide behind," said Parker, 33, a salesman for AT&T Inc. Since the storm hit, he had been stuck at home with intermittent electricity. When he heard that gaming tables were reopening yesterday, he drove about 50 miles from Lacey Township, New Jersey, straight to the casino.

Parker was one of a handful of gamblers who returned to Atlantic City as the nation's second-largest gambling market resumed operations after closing for almost a week because of the storm. Some, like Parker, were eager to escape the tedium of staying at home without power, while others were looking for a break from cleanup efforts.

The hurricane that struck New Jersey on Oct. 29 battered oceanfront communities, splintering boardwalks and leveling vacation homes up and down its 127-mile coastline. At least 22 people died in the Garden State from the storm, part of an estimated national death toll of at least 105, according to the Associated Press.

Sandy, which made landfall near Atlantic City, caused as much as $50 billion in economic damage nationwide, according to Eqecat Inc., a provider of catastrophic risk models. For New Jersey, the storm scored a direct hit on its beach attractions, the economic engine for a $38 billion-a-year tourism industry.

Atlantic City's 12 casinos were shuttered on Oct. 28 as Hurricane Sandy approached, part of a mandatory evacuation order that was lifted yesterday morning by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Last year, Atlantic City's gambling industry ranked second behind Nevada's with $3.3 billion in spending, according to the American Gaming Association trade group. Casino winnings declined 4.8 percent to $2.4 billion in the first nine months of this year, according to the state gaming enforcement division.

Besides the Borgata, owned by MGM Resorts International and Boyd Gaming Corp., casinos that reopened for business yesterday included those operated by Caesars Entertainment Corp. and Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc.

Damage to city casinos was relatively minor, Anthony Rodio, chief executive officer of Tropicana Entertainment Inc., said in an Oct. 30 interview on Bloomberg Television. He said it was early to assess the impact of the storm on casino operators.

"There's going to be a financial blow," Rodio said. "But it's a one-time occurrence, and I think the investment community and Wall Street understands that."

Bill Lloyd, another gambler who returned to the casinos yesterday heard about Christie's decision to allow betting to resume after returning to his home in Ocean City and discovering that more than a foot of water had flooded his first floor.

"I said to the wife, 'Get ready, we're going to the casino,'" said Lloyd, who owns awning maker Shore Breeze LLC.

Lloyd, 68, said he wasn't concerned about leaving his home, which had minimal damage, or about gambling while so many others struggled through the post-storm clean-up.

"What are you going to do?" Lloyd said. "Mother Nature owned all that land at one time and any time she wants it back, she's going to take it."

About 6,300 people, many from the barrier islands between the Atlantic Ocean and the New Jersey mainland, remained in state-run emergency shelters. Almost 1.5 million homes and businesses in New Jersey, or about 37 percent of the state's power customers, remained without electricity as of 2 p.m. yesterday, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

The storm washed parts of Atlantic City's iconic boardwalk into nearby streets, and left largely empty a town that normally has almost 40,000 residents and thousands more tourists.

Michael Corrigan, who lives in Brigantine Beach, a small town adjacent to Atlantic City, returned home yesterday for the first time since heeding the mandatory evacuation.

The 31-year-old bartender said he was surprised that the casinos opened so quickly. Media reports and calls from a friend who had stayed in Atlantic City during the storm had convinced him he would return to a ghost town.

"It's time to get my football bets down," he said as he walked into the Borgata.

By early evening yesterday, only a handful of gaming tables were open and few slot machines were being used. Several dozen gamblers sat in an area that could normally accommodate hundreds. At the Golden Nugget, only three people played poker and a few more surrounded a craps table. A few dozen slot machine players were scattered amid a forest of hundreds of machines.

Lauren and Jake Hartkorn were online yesterday trying to find a place to stay in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania to celebrate Lauren's 33rd birthday when they heard that Atlantic City was reopening. They said they were delighted because they had reservations for a hotel in town and had assumed they would not be able to keep them.

After playing slots at the Golden Nugget casino for an hour, they were smiling and laughing. They had been cooped up without power in their home in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, with their two children, age 4 and 1, they said.

"We were going a little stir crazy and now we're outta there," Lauren Hartkorn said.

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