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OPINION: Through it all, Biloxi gets it right

While New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin continues to get criticized for his actions and inactions before, during and after Hurricane Katrina, Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway has been a media darling.

It seems that Holloway, 66, has made all of the right moves before, during and after the big storm.

Biloxians rewarded him for that again last week when he won the Republican nomination for a fifth term as mayor.

Despite that fact that many Biloxi neighborhoods were hit just as hard as Waveland and Bay St. Louis, Holloway’s keen preparation and a little luck helped him and his city get back into the fight more quickly than most.

“I put our success to the people of Biloxi,” Holloway said. “We were doing very well before the hurricane, and I think they were all proud of the success we were having. I think that carried over.

“The day after the storm, our people cried all their tears and then got out there and started doing what they had to do. Plus, all of the help from everyone across the country, and their help keeps pouring in every day.”

That and the fact that Holloway happened to take out a $10-million insurance policy for the city just 60 days before Katrina came crashing into the Gulf Coast.

“We’d been talking about this business interruption for about a year,” Holloway said. “I knew it was a matter of when, not if, we were going to get another pretty good hurricane.”

Holloway recalled that when Hurricane Georges came through in 1998, many of the casinos were down six to eight weeks, with Treasure Bay out of commission for six months.

So, it only stood to reason that if a big storm were to come again, it would take a chunk out of Biloxi’s operation expenses.

And considering that 38 percent of Biloxi’s revenue comes from the casino business, Holloway was looking out for the city’s best interests.

“It makes a hell of a difference in your income,” Holloway said. “But we never dreamed there would be a hurricane like Katrina that would knock all of the casinos out for months at a time.”

So, based on six months’ income, Holloway and Biloxi took out a $10-million policy in June 2005.

“Guess what, you can’t get that kind of policy now,” Holloway said.

But while other communities were struggling with tax base, Biloxi was working with money that was gained from Holloway’s vision.

What Holloway never envisioned, however, was a storm like Katrina. He, his wife and family had been through Camille in 1969 and every other storm that came since then at his family home.

He had every intention of doing the same with Katrina, until he got a call early Sunday morning, Aug. 28.

Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore asked Holloway to come down to the beach to do an interview.

“You know when Cantore shows up in your town, that can’t be good,” Holloway said. “Because they put him wherever they think the action is going to be.”

When the interview was finished, Cantore pulled him aside and told Holloway something he will never forget.

“He said, ‘A.J., this is a bad son of a bitch. It’s covering the whole Gulf of Mexico right now. There’s no way we can escape it. All the ingredients are there. It’s worse than Camille.’”

Cantore then went on to tell Holloway to go and take one final drive around Biloxi, “because you won’t see it like this tomorrow.”

Before Holloway could get off the beach, he was on his cell phone to his wife telling her to call the kids, “Tell ‘em we’re going up to City Hall.”

And that’s where Holloway and family rode out the storm.

“We could see it coming, and then the debris came with cars and trucks floating by the building,” Holloway said. “I never thought we would be back where we are today, that day that I walked out there and saw the destruction.”

He said the one thing that made the recovery quick was the Mississippi Legislature’s approval of a change in gaming law that allows the casinos to move 800 feet onshore. The law previously required them to be over water, whether on boats or barges.

“That allowed three casinos to get open in 3 1/2 months,” Holloway said.

Despite the troubles that the casino industry is having in the current economic climate, some estimate that when all of the property at Point Cadet is cleared and sold, there could ultimately be as many as 15 casinos in Biloxi.

And the money that comes in will allow Holloway and the City of Biloxi to continue the rebuilding process throughout the rest of town, where poorer people are still having a hard time getting back on their feet.

“We know a lot of people are still hurting. We do,” Holloway said. “We are working hard. The state is working hard, and we are working to get as much as we can from the federal government to make sure we get as many people on their feet as quickly as possible. That is our plan.”

So far, Holloway’s plans have worked out pretty well.

Contact MBJ Managing Editor Ross Reily at ross.reily@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.

About Ross Reily

Ross Reily is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. He is a husband to an amazing wife, dad to 3 crazy kids and 2 dogs. He is also a fan of the Delta State Fighting Okra and the Boston Red Sox.

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