Atlantic City casinos closed Sunday as the resort braced for an approaching storm driven by Hurricane Sandy.
“Reports from meteorologists … are calling for a storm worse than 1962, when the bay met the ocean,” said Tom Foley, director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management. “That was 8.5 feet. (Now) we’re talking about close to 10 feet above mean low water. That’s a lot of water. We’ve never dealt with that in the city of Atlantic City, and I know it’s going to be close to that.”
From a financial standpoint, however, the gambling industry expects less catastrophic effects from Sandy than from Tropical Storm Irene, said Tony Rodio, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey.
Irene wasn’t as severe as expected, but the storm did damage casino winnings, which took a 20 percent hit during August 2011 due to a three-day shutdown and evacuation.
“Irene was different. That was in the summer, and it was a Friday through Sunday. This is the end of October, starting on a Sunday. It won’t be as impactful from a financial standpoint as long as there isn’t continued disruption after. Hopefully, (Sandy) comes through and, like Irene, isn’t as bad (weatherwise) as it’s supposed to be,” said Rodio, who is also president and CEO of Tropicana Casino and Resort.
Tropicana started closing down at noon Sunday, three hours before the gambling stop ordered by Gov. Chris Christie and the state Division of Gaming Enforcement.
The state’s directives issued Saturday gave Atlantic City casinos until 4 p.m. Sunday to completely close down.
All properties have complied, Rodio said Sunday.
Evacuation orders likely will be lifted Wednesday. In the meantime, the giant buildings are being manned by skeleton crews of 15 to 20 essential personnel at each site, including State Police troopers, security guards, DGE inspectors, and facilities and administrative staff.
Crowds had vanished from the resort long before the state’s deadlines.
Most casinos started nailing boards to their doors opening onto the Boardwalk on Saturday afternoon, and asked guests to check out at noon Sunday. Just inside most casino entrances, security guards waited to turn away prospective gambling and dining patrons.
Lory Bivians braved the drizzle in an attempt to experience a little bit of the vacation she had planned for the upcoming week. She spotted the word “open” scrawled in red on the boards covering Bally’s Atlantic City’s entrance on the Boardwalk. Turned out that was left over from Saturday, and no one was allowed in anymore, the security guards inside said.
“We were going to do everything,” said Bivians, who traveled to Atlantic City from Denver. “I don’t gamble, but I was going to check out the nightlife, food, see the sights, people watch. I even brought a (Halloween) costume.”
Instead, Bivians, who arrived Saturday from outside Denver, will spend her time at a shelter. That’s where she was directed by the timeshare company that arranged for her stay at The Flagship condo high-rise in the resort’s Northeast Inlet section.
The Boardwalk was nearly devoid of people besides the occasional police car rolling by or work crews nailing plywood and piling sandbags on the seaward side of Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort.
The Walk Outlets and The Pier Shops at Caesars were closed, and the sidewalks elsewhere were empty.
The city last looked this desolate during Irene, which was only the second time casinos have been shuttered in more than three decades, and the city’s first-ever mandatory evacuation.
“Given what I’m seeing on the Weather Channel, I think it was the right call,” Rodio said of the evacuation for Sandy. “You have to err on the side of caution. I think I and all industry leaders support (Governor Christie’s) decision. We don’t want our employees and customers in harm’s way.”
Rodio, who lives 30 miles west of the resort in Hammonton, was reached on his cellphone Sunday evening just after a press briefing organized by Foley, Mayor Lorenzo Langford and a half-dozen other local public safety and transportation officials.
The city is bracing for what might be unprecedented devastation, Foley said.
“Certainly, any time you are forced to shut the casinos down and shut down that cashflow spigot, it’s going to have a negative effect on the bottom line,” Langford said. “We don’t want that; we certainly would like to see it go in the opposite direction, but we have to play the hand we’ve been dealt.”
Part of the preparation entailed rebuilding dunes in front of Resorts Casino Hotel at Pennsylvania Avenue on Thursday. The mounds of sand were removed a couple weeks ago as part of a $13 million project to build a Margaritaville Land Shark Bar & Grill over the ocean where Steeplechase Pier once stood.
Ongoing replenishment projects have helped, too, by widening beaches, Foley said.
Officials started urging residents to evacuate Friday, when they also made plans to close schools next week to use those buildings as shelters. They dispatched buses and jitneys to retrieve residents without a place to stay offshore starting at noon Sunday.
As darkness fell Sunday, 350 people waited for a ride out of the resort at the Atlantic City Convention Center, where 1,150 residents already had been processed and sent to shelters throughout the state. About 500 had gathered at local shelters set up at the city’s All Wars Memorial Building and five public schools, according to a statement from the city’s Office of Emergency Management.
Police, meanwhile, continued knocking on doors to ensure people leave the city or go to a shelter within it. Earlier Sunday, they had targeted the low-lying Bungalow Park, Lower Chelsea and Chelsea Heights neighborhoods, where flooding risks are greatest, and found everyone had left those areas, Foley said.
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