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Mardi Gras masks big problems in the Big Easy

“Today” show host Katie Couric reports from the ground in New Orleans.
/ Source: TODAY

From the sky, New Orleans still looks like a war zone. Upended trees and houses in the middle of the street, slammed down in Oz-like fashion. The ubiquitous blue FEMA tarps cover rooftops, and a boat is docked skyward against the roof of a house.

New Orleans Deputy Chief of Police Marlon Defillo, who took me on a helicopter tour in early September, remains distraught at the pace of the cleanup. He, along with 85 percent of the police department, is still homeless. His home marinated in 10 feet of water for several weeks, rendering it a lost cause. For the last several months he has lived on the Carnival cruise ship “Ecstasy” — which I teased him is surely a hit with the ladies. The other one docked in New Orleans is “The Sensation.”

Efforts to rebuild New Orleans seem to have fallen victim to a sort of reverse domino effect. Many steps need to happen so the current situation can be reversed and the city can stand upright again. People need trailers to stay in so they can even assess the possibility of rebuilding. But trailers can't be parked on parcels of land that may not be suitable for rebuilding. The blueprint that will help people know if they're in an area that can and should be populated hasn't been released. The levees are still being repaired. Basic services still haven't been restored. Debris is everywhere, and of course there is the even bigger problem of jobs, income, insurance and poverty. All these things seem to add up to a nightmarish Katrina Catch-22 that has stymied the entire process. And yet, according to a USA Today poll, 1 out of 4 residents want to stay and see the city return to its former glory.  

Those who are from these parts will tell you there's a certain "je ne sais quois" attitude about the blows life deals. That is perhaps best exemplified by the zany partygoers I witnessed in New Orleans.

I've never been to Mardi Gras before, but there was something exhilarating about the devil-may-care attitude of the celebrants. I spotted the kind of people you'd expect to see wheeling a cart through the produce section of your local grocery store, sporting the craziest getups. 

One lady and her husband walked down Bourbon Street with stuffed tigers on their backs and T-shirts that read: "There's a tank in my tiger." (Huh?) And then there was the man with the chicken mask and cape sporting a T-shirt that said, "Eat Mo Chicken." With very little coaxing he lifted up his makeshift skirt, revealing a black thong decorated like a — what else — chicken, replete with felt comb and waddle placed directly … well, use your imagination. There were people dressed as MRE's (That’s Meal’s Ready to Eat for you non-military types), ER doctors (something tells me they were imposters) and a King Tut headdress juxtaposed against men with megaphones and signs saying, "Sinners Go to Hell!" I wondered, “Who are these people? Why are they here?” And yet there was something reassuring about their presence.

Six months ago, I was in waders wondering if this city would ever get its head above water. It's reassuring to see intelligent and not so intelligent signs of life. The thing that I felt both times was an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Can various levels of government, organizations and individuals work together when the problems are so immense? Can they share a common goal and get things done without forming another committee for endless discussions about forming another committee?  Can they forgo petty competition, jealousy, credit mongering, inertia and bureaucracy to accomplish things for the greater good?  My skepticism and utopian fantasies could ultimately give way to only one thing, the thing that somehow keeps us all going in the most dire situations — hope.  What else is there?