ATLANTIC CITY - Slot machines went mute, the dice stopped rolling and luggage-toting customers bolted for the doors Friday at the Atlantic City casinos in advance of Hurricane Irene.
By 8 p.m., 10 of the 11 casino hotels had closed - only the second time in the city's 33-year history of legalized gambling that a hurricane forced a shutdown. Hurricane Gloria caused them to close in September 1985 when the storm veered dangerously near the coast.
Golden Nugget Atlantic City was the only casino to remain open Friday. Amy Chasey, Golden Nugget's vice president of marketing, said the casino will close at noon today, but the hotel and some restaurants plan to stay open throughout the weekend, offering limited services.
The mass exodus of customers left the casinos and Boardwalk looking like a ghost town. The Boardwalk, normally bustling with summer crowds, was virtually deserted by late afternoon, when the skies were still sunny.
"You couldn't ask for a better beach day in late August, but the Boardwalk is empty. It's surreal," said Tony Rodio, president and chief executive officer of Tropicana Casino and Resort.
Resorts Casino Hotel was the first to shut down, closing at 8 a.m.
"It's an eerie feeling, isn't it?" Aaron Gomes, executive vice president of operations at Resorts, said while standing in the middle of a dark gaming floor devoid of customers.
Like other casinos, Resorts fortified its Boardwalk entrance with heavy plywood and sandbags. The boarded-up oceanfront windows gave the giant gaming halls a stark appearance.
As part of their emergency shutdown procedures, the casinos locked away their cash and gaming chips, shut off the slot machines and called in armed guards to protect the buildings during the storm. Electricity remained on so that surveillance cameras could keep an eye on things.
Casino executives and the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement will be in discussions throughout the weekend to work toward a "seamless reopening," state spokeswoman Lisa Spengler said.
Gomes said Resorts could remain closed until Sunday or even Monday, depending on the amount of damage and flooding the hurricane causes over the weekend. He estimated Resorts would lose $3 million in revenue.
"It hurts," he said. "This was probably going to be one of the busiest weekends of the year."
Caesars officially closed at 4 p.m., but casino guests started leaving Thursday night and by Friday afternoon there were few people in rooms or on the casino floor.
On the Boardwalk entrance of the casino, the glass doors were boarded up in places and paper signs taped to the doors told people about the closing. By the Pacific Avenue entrance, yellow caution tape was strung across the valet entrance.
Even before the Trump Taj Mahal closed at 8 p.m., the entrances to the self-park lots were blocked off. Workers were cleaning up inside and telling anyone who walked through the doors that the casino would be closing soon.
The scene was the same also at Trump Plaza, with the large majority of patrons leaving long before the hotel officially closed
The hurricane is the latest blow for an industry already struggling with the fragile economy and competition from casinos in surrounding states. Irene threatens to wash out a prime money-making summer weekend for the casinos.
Casinos had no choice but to close. Atlantic City is under a mandatory evacuation order. Gov. Chris Christie said the gaming industry would have to shut down by noon today, but the casinos had already announced plans Friday to shutter their properties.
"While we know this will be an inconvenience for our guests, we know they will understand that this decision has been made with their safety and the safety of our employees in mind," said Don Marrandino, president of the Bally's, Caesars, Harrah's Resort and Showboat casinos owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp. "We will take all steps necessary to ensure a smooth, efficient and safe evacuation process."
Brian Cahill, a spokesman for Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort and Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, said employees were told not to report for work after 4 p.m. Friday. Both Trump casinos will operate with limited staffing levels to assist customers. Cahill said efforts were being made to notify hotel guests and casino customers "to leave the property as soon as possible."
"We are taking every measure possible to contact guests who had planned to visit this weekend and inform them that the property will be closed," Cahill said.
Even before they officially closed, some casinos appeared desolate. Rows of slot machines were empty on the Taj Mahal's sprawling gaming floor. Blackjack dealers stood idly at the gaming tables, waiting for customers.
"I don't want to be around here when the storm hits," Taj Mahal customer Joseph Doherty said.
"No one wants to be here," Doherty's wife, Teresa, quickly added. "Isn't this something? Everybody has left."
The Dohertys were getting in some last-minute gambling at a 25-cent slot machine before heading home to Clifton, Passaic County, about a two-hour drive from Atlantic City.
Another Taj Mahal customer, Louise Ferguson, had packed her suitcase and was heading home a day early. Ferguson, of Blackwood, Camden County, said she feared getting stuck in traffic jams evacuating the coast.
"I'm 67 years old, so I think I've been through some tornadoes or hurricanes since I was 5 or 6, but I am still kind of scared of this one," she said.
Anthony and Patricia Verderano, Taj Mahal customers from Rockaway, Morris County, were worried about the hurricane-force winds that are expected in Atlantic City starting today. However, they were already planning to return to the shore for more gambling next week.
"You have to really worry about this hurricane," Anthony Verderano said. "We've had 65 mph winds before, but now they're talking about 85 mph. It's supposed to be really nasty, but we'll be back Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday if everything is OK."
Mikal's Funeral Parlor in Atlantic City parked two hearses on the second floor of the Taj Mahal parking garage to protect them from flooding. Still, the sight of hearses parked at a casino was a grim reminder of the danger of the storm.
At Showboat Casino Hotel, Dianne Romano, of Staten Island, N.Y., stood in the lobby, her 5-year-old grandson, Brock Henry Raybold, at her side. Romano was hoping to catch a bus home well before the hurricane arrived.
"I'm petrified," she said. "This is crazy."
Her grandson looked quizzically at the buzz of activity inside Showboat as customers hurried through the hallways and lobby on their way out the doors.
"He loves Atlantic City," Romano said of Brock. "He's crying. He wants to stay."
Later in the day, Showboat had only a few stragglers left on the casino floor. As Elvis Presley crooned "Jailhouse Rock" over the loudspeakers, slots player Pat Nero was trying to coax a jackpot out of a 25-cent machine.
"Since we're here, we might as well play," said Nero, a Sayreville, Middlesex County, resident who had planned to spend two weeks in Atlantic City with his wife before the storm ruined their vacation.
A Showboat security guard politely told Nero to cash out at the slot machine, just as the casino was preparing to close at 4 p.m.
Over the public address system came an announcement from a Showboat employee: "We are taking the threat of this hurricane very seriously, and we know you will, too. Thank you for understanding. We look forward to welcoming you back at Showboat as soon as possible."
Staff Writers Scott Cronick and Lee Procida contributed to this report
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