Tuesday, September 16, 2008

FUNWORLD Update: Hurricane Watch on the Gulf Coast, the Good and the Bad

Last year I wrote a cover story about how the casino and resort industry along the Mississippi Gulf Coast had helped rebuild that community after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Though I only spent a week in the sweltering summer heat of the seaside tourist spot, the people I met there and their community will always be with me. Such was the impact of seeing both the incredible destruction and the equally incredible willpower of the people to rebuild.

The flipside of that coin occurs every time a new storm is bearing down on the Gulf Coast; I immediately think of the people and places I visited down there, hoping and praying they'll come through the next one OK. Thankfully, it seems they have this time around.

The past few weeks have been full of hurricane-related news here in the U.S., as storms Gustav and Ike, respectively, barreled up through the Gulf of Mexico and slammed into the southeast quarter of the country. Now that the dust—and water—has settled from those two storms, I touched base with a couple of my contacts from the area, and they said, in general, the Mississippi Gulf Coast fared pretty well:

"Gustav was a nuisance and, yes, the winds caused further pruning of our trees. But, we’re a tough, strong, upbeat bunch down here," said Marcia Crawford of the Harrison County Development Commission, based in Gulfport, Mississippi.

"Gustav and Ike were little more than annoyances to most of the Mississippi Gulf Coast," said Janice Jones of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Personally, Gustav trimmed mostly dead limbs from trees on my property and felled one tree that Katrina killed. It was a good cleansing for my family."

Jones went on to say there was some damage to buildings on West Ship Island, a tourist site about an hour's boat ride out in the gulf (see my story for details), but trips out to the island are hopefully going to resume next week. "Other than that, our attractions, golf courses, casinos, and fishing waters are open," Jones said.

It's not all good news, though. If you saw yesterday's IAAPA News Flash, the top story quoted IAAPA member Gulf Islands Waterpark officials saying business has definitely been affected at the Gulf Coast's only waterpark by the storms.

Unfortunately, as is almost always the case in these situations, one region's mercy is another's disaster. At the same time I breathed a sigh of relief over the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I had to hold my breath for my contacts on and near the Texas coast, which was absolutely drilled by Hurricane Ike. I was in Houston about a year and a half ago for a cover story on Landry's Restaurants, which is based in the city and owns and operates member facility Kemah Boardwalk, with its mix of restaurants and amusement rides (including last year's "Boardwalk Bullet" wooden coaster), on the nearby Gulf Coast. Understandably, I haven't heard back from my Landry's contact in Houston, but if you want to see what happened to Kemah Boardwalk, click here for a local news report (thanks to Screamscape for finding the link).

The five-minute piece features an interview with Kemah Boardwalk GM Tim Anderson, whom I met briefly during my trip last year. Standing amidst piles of broken glass and other rubble, he says he's been at Kemah for 10 years and has never seen anything like the fury of Ike (reports say Kemah was hit with a 17-foot surge of water). One glance at the video easily demonstrates the havoc wreaked on what was, just last week, a beautiful waterside development (one of the biggest tourist attractions in Texas, according to Anderson). About three minutes in, Anderson and the reporter move over where the group of small amusement rides are located, and they are just mangled.

"We started from nothing before, we've got a lot of work to do, but we can build this business back to what it was—and possibly make it even better," Anderson tells the reporter. "Some of it is not as bad as it looks."

The interview was conducted Sunday, and at that time Anderson said Landry's hadn't established any kind of timeline for reconstruction. I speak for all of us here at IAAPA in wishing them the best in their recovery efforts.

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