Gambling after Katrina

I know people say that the casino industry is recession-proof, but this might be taking this too far. Steve Lopez of the LA Times has a great story about someone gambling in Lake Charles, Louisiana, even though his New Orleans-area home is still underwater. Evidence, perhaps, that the human urge to gamble is almost as strong as the survival instinct.

From the LA Times:

“I ‘ve been cryin’ for a week,” a red-eyed Gail Plank of eastern Texas said as she played the 25-cent Sizzling 7 slot machines Sunday morning and drew hard on a Doral cigarette.

“I have family that’s still lost.”

Plank insisted she wasn’t really in the mood to yank slots after the Gulf states tested their luck against Katrina and lost big.

But she gambles so often, she was invited to participate in the Lazy Labor Day Slot Tournament at Harrah’s Casino & Hotel, so she figured why not?

If she wins, Plank said, Hurricane Katrina evacuees are in luck.

“I’m giving it all to the Red Cross.”

I had seen the riverboat out of the corner of my eye as I sped toward the center of the disaster zone and drove right past it before realizing it was a casino.

Who, I wondered, would be throwing money away in a casino when thousands of Gulf shore residents have lost their lives, their homes and their jobs? When the Big One hits Los Angeles and one-story houses suddenly become split-levels, will we all meet up around a poker table in the City of Commerce?

Doubling back to Harrah’s, I figured maybe the place was being used as a staging or rest area for rescue crews, even though Lake Charles is two hours from the worst of the damage.

But I was wrong, of course.

Down the long corridor I walked, past the food court, past the “Come On Down” $1 million giveaway promotion and down the ramp to two riverboat gambling halls: Pride of Lake Charles and Star of Lake Charles.

I went with the Pride, and although it was sparsely populated, it was filling up fast with gamblers, not rescue workers.

Not far away, I noticed another man whose body language said “losing streak.” He was wearing a shirt that read, “I Got Out Of Bed For This?”

“Oh, I’m losing all right,” Ralph Moten said as a slot machine ate his quarters. “Down $100 already.” Yeah, that is a lot.

“I lost my house,” he went on. “Lost everything.”

You lost what?

“Lost my house.”

To the hurricane?

Yes, he said, hitting the “Bet One Credit” button again.

Moten said he left his four-bedroom home in Metairie, close to the New Orleans boundary, just before the hurricane hit. Neighbors who stayed behind have told him the whole area is underwater, including much of his house.

Moten and 11 other family members, including seven grandchildren, made their way to Lake Charles and met a cop who escorted them to a shelter at the local civic center.

It’s all been a bit too much to handle, said Moten, 56, a former welder who is on disability after a serious car accident several years ago. He has no idea how badly damaged his house is or when he’ll be able to return, and his bed is now a narrow cot in a crammed, noisy auditorium, where he tosses all night but can’t really turn.

“I had to get out of there,” he said. “It’s too much stress and too depressing, and one little baby cried all night.” One of the other evacuees said he’d been to the casino for a little relief, and Moten found himself out back of the civic auditorium, looking across the lake at the casino.

“You can see the riverboats from there,” he said in his own defense. “I had a $10 Harrah’s coupon in my pocket, so I had to come.”

Moten didn’t tell any of the relatives what he was up to. “I just said I’m going for a ride.”

Now he wondered if he should quit while he still had enough money to buy lunch. Then again, he was way overdue for a change of luck.

It’s all a roll of the dice, Moten knows all too well. Who loses his house in a hurricane, who wins a million bucks at a casino. A roll of the dice.

I saw him a half hour later, way up on the third floor of the Pride. The casino was mobbed by then, and he was playing the 1-cent slots, still waiting for that lucky break.

After the Deluge, Betting on a Break

I can’t really add too much to that. What a story. I guess if it really all just is a roll of the dice, we might as well gamble our last cent. I’ve got to say that’s an attitude that the Fortune-obsessed Romans would have found quite familiar.

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