ATLANTIC CITY - Atlantic City’s 11 casino hotels are expected to close today for only the third time in history as Hurricane Irene barrels up the coast and a mandatory evacuation begins in the seaside resort.

Dennis Gomes, chief executive officer of Resorts Casino Hotel, said the gaming industry effectively will shut down because of a mandatory evacuation order issued by the Atlantic County Office of Emergency Management starting 6 a.m. today.

Gomes said casinos began removing cash and locking away gaming chips Thursday night to prepare for a shutdown. Hotel guests will be checked out throughout the day until the casinos eventually are empty, he added.

“At that point, only armed police and security guards will be in the buildings,” Gomes said. "We are counting all the money and putting it in the bank and taking the chips off the tables."

As of 10:20 p.m. Thursday, neither Gov. Chris Christie’s office nor the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement had directed the casinos to close, spokeswoman Lisa Spengler said.

“We’re monitoring the situation. There’s nothing coming out of the governor’s office or from us at this point,” said Spengler, who works for the DGE.

However, Gomes said a shutdown was inevitable because of the county evacuation order. Traffic will flow out of town on the Atlantic City Expressway and no one will be allowed into the city, he said.

“Basically, we don’t have a choice,” he said. “Once all of the guests are out, we’ll close down. All of the casinos are doing the same thing.

“It’s too bad because we’re sold out and this was expected to be a big weekend. But we don’t want to put people at risk,” Gomes continued.

Robert Griffin, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey and CEO of Trump Entertainment, said the individual casino owners were making plans to possibly close.

"We will all probably voluntarily close at some point," he said. "Right now, everything is open. But I'd make the leap of faith to believe that at some point over the weekend, there will be closures. We're putting letters under the door in each of our rooms letting

guests know they may have to get out of town soon, that they won't be able to stay over during the weekend. I've got 1,500 people in my hotel, I'm trying to call in my managers and we're all trying to get our families to safety."

Don Marrandino, Eastern Division President of Caesars Entertainment which operates Harrah’s Resort, Bally’s Atlantic City, Caesars Atlantic City and Showboat Casino-Hotel, said late Thursday that he was “not sure” if the casinos would close this weekend.

Casino executives are scheduled to meet 2 p.m. today with emergency management officials to discuss possible evacuation or shutdown plans for the weekend. The New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement said all 11 casino hotels have emergency plans in place to deal with natural disasters.

“If warranted, we are confident that those plans will be implemented accordingly,” said Spengler, adding emergency management officials provide constant updates on the hurricane’s track to the casinos as well as the DGE. The division’s investigators and State Police will be at the casinos to ensure regulatory compliance and protect the integrity of the games, she added.

Casinogoers such as Bob Lubella from Staten Island, N.Y. started making plans to leave Atlantic City before the hurricane arrives. Lubella sat on the Boardwalk Thursday, reading a copy of the New York Post that screamed “Mean Irene” in a big headline. The story included an ominous satellite photo of the hurricane that is bearing down on the New Jersey coast.

“We should all cut our plans short because of this hurricane,” said Lubella, a Caesars Atlantic City customer from Staten Island. “What the casinos should do is to tell everyone to go home.”

Camille Ferrante, a Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino guest, was heading home a day early to Staten Island.

“First of all, you want to get home to make sure things are all right there,” said

Abnet Bisrat, another guest at Trump Plaza, said she originally had planned to stay until Friday but instead decided to catch a bus home Thursday night to Washington, D.C.

“I’m not going to wait around to see what happens,” Bisrat said while glancing warily at the ocean from the Boardwalk.

Hurricane Irene is threatening to cause the first weather-related casino closings since Hurricane Gloria forced a temporary shutdown in September 1985. Casinos also closed for three days in July 2006 during a state budget crisis that forced New Jersey gaming inspectors off the job.

Gomes said the gaming industry — already unnerved by the rare East Coast earthquake that struck Tuesday — is “preparing for the worst” as Irene approaches.

“I’d like to think that the probability of these things is pretty rare, just like that earthquake. But I’m not taking anything for granted,” Gomes said.

Gomes and other gaming executives pledged the casinos would do whatever possible to protect their customers, employees and property.

“We will closely monitor all weather reports and all advisories given by the weather service and state and local authorities and take the appropriate steps to ensure the safety of our guests and employees. Their safety is our top priority,” Marrandino said.

Brian Cahill, a spokesman for Trump Plaza and Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, said the two casinos had already canceled their junket trips and bus programs as part of their emergency plans.

“At this point, we are prepared as possible for the storm,” Cahill said. “We will be updated by the county emergency management and adjust our plans accordingly.”

Tony Rodio, president and CEO of Tropicana Casino and Resort, said the gaming hall was securing its beach cabanas and any outdoor areas that could be susceptible to damage from high winds and rain.

Casinos plan to use only minimal staffing during the hurricane, keeping the rest of the work force safely at home, executives said. As casinos have done in previous storms, they will use sandbags and window coverings to try to protect buildings that are exposed to the ocean.

“The biggest threat for damage is from flooding,” Gomes said of the possibility of a strong storm surge.

A shutdown this weekend would prove very costly to Atlantic City, which

is already struggling with a 4.5-year revenue slump brought on by competition from casinos in neighboring states and worsened by the fragile economy. Gomes estimated a lost weekend could cost Resorts $3.5 million to $4 million in lost business.

"This weekend is 25 percent of one of the two best months of the year," Gomes said.

The three-day shutdown in 2006 cost the Atlantic City casinos an estimated $50 million to $55 million.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Donald Wittkowski:

609-272-7258