Atlantic City's 11 casinos raced Thursday to secure cash, lock away chips, stack sandbags and notify guests their vacations would be cut short as the gambling halls braced for a likely shutdown due to Hurricane Irene after area officials ordered a citywide evacuation.
The shutdown would be only the third since legalized gambling began in 1978 in the New Jersey city, the nation's second-largest gambling market.
State government had not issued an order as of Thursday night forcing the casinos to close, but Robert Griffin, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, said the individual casino owners were making plans to do just that.
"We will all probably voluntarily close at some point," he told The Associated Press. "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."
A hurricane also caused the first shutdown in 1985 when Hurricane Gloria threatened the coast before veering off to sea at the last minute. And in 2006, a state government shutdown forced the closure of the casinos for three days because state inspectors, deemed essential state employees, could not legally be paid.
Casino executives planned to meet Friday afternoon with local and state emergency management officials to decide whether to shut down the casinos during the storm, which was projected to be at its worst Sunday.
"If that mandatory evacuation is not changed, the casinos will have to shut down," said Dennis Gomes, co-owner of Resorts Casino Hotel. "There's the possibility of a 10-foot storm surge, which could cover the entire island with water. It's horrible."
A shutdown would prove 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," he said.
The three-day shutdown in 2006 cost the Atlantic City casinos an estimated $50 million to $55 million.
Thursday, Casinos raced to secure their cash and wind down gambling activities Thursday evening, while still maintaining enough service for the gamblers still on hand.
"We're putting all our cash in the bank, dumping the contents of the slot machines, taking chips off the floor then locking them away," Gomes said. "We have armed people in the building, state police, local police and our own security to secure the place. Right now I'm moving my family offshore. I live on one of the barrier islands and they told us we have to evacuate."
"We're getting cash off the floor and into armored cars, putting sandbags on the Boardwalk, you name it," added Don Marrandino, eastern division president of Caesars Entertainment, which owns four Atlantic City casinos.
Norm Thornton, 58, and his wife came from Chicago to visit their daughter and her family in Philadelphia, and decided to take a side trip to Atlantic City. But when they arrived Thursday evening, they learned that they wouldn't be allowed to stay at Bally's Atlantic City because of the storm.
"It's a shame, I've been feeling lucky all day," he said. "But now it looks like the storm made me crap out. I hate Irene."
Parry reported from Point Pleasant. He can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC