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From afar, Mardi Gras has bitter edge

Some Katrina evacuees celebrate, others find it in poor taste
/ Source: The Associated Press

June Davis snapped pictures as her children threw beads, pulled cardboard floats on toy wagons and paraded around their Houston school for Hurricane Katrina refugees.

“I’ve always liked the big parades before Fat Tuesday, but I guess this is the closest I’ll get to Mardi Gras this year,” said Davis, who has lived in a FEMA-paid apartment since she left her flooded New Orleans home.

For some New Orleans residents still waiting to return home, this is going to be a pathetic Mardi Gras.

To other refugees, however, the big parades in New Orleans seem almost grotesque. They wonder whether the city has its priorities straight in throwing a party at a time when many homes lay in ruins.

While Davis hopes to find Fat Tuesday parades on television, refugee Samuel Spears has already seen enough. The retiree said footage from his hometown of bead-tossing and carousing tourists just made him more angry.

“With them putting on Mardi Gras, without still having not addressed the basic human needs in this city, why that’s just a slap in the face,” said Spears, who fears it could be months before he can move back to New Orleans. “I can’t go home, but they can have a parade? That’s ridiculous.”

Donna Smith, who worked as a registered nurse at Louisiana State University before moving to Houston, wondered how the celebration could go on with so many residents still displaced.

“You can’t have Mardi Gras culture without New Orleans people,” said Smith, who plans to move back to New Orleans by March. “The people are the culture. Mardi Gras is the last thing that needed to happen.”

Others refugees sought to celebrate in any way possible. In Jackson, Miss., church organizers working with more than 1,000 displaced families prepared for a Fat Tuesday party at a restaurant.

“Burying Katrina is the theme, getting some closure, just putting it to rest for a minute,” said Michael Stanton, a caseworker for Lutheran Episcopal Services.

'A very sad time'Mardi Gras organizers in Galveston, Texas, which traditionally holds one of the biggest celebrations outside New Orleans, had braced for a bigger turnout this year with 150,000 evacuees still living in nearby Houston. But wet and unusually cold weather last weekend kept crowds smaller than expected, and many refugees were not interested in attending another city’s Mardi Gras.

“It’s kind of hard to go somewhere else after experiencing Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the greatest free show in the world,” said Frank Livaudais, a native of New Orleans who sold his house after Katrina and moved to suburban Houston.

Instead, Livaudais and his wife celebrated Mardi Gras last week at a party with about 100 other refugees behind a trendy restaurant in Houston. Masked waiters offered crab cakes and grilled shrimp around an open bar. A king and queen were chosen from a bowl of business cards, many belonging to managers at oil and gas companies.

“This party is a comfort,” said refugee Linda Eustis, whose husband also works in the oil industry. “But it’s also a very sad time.”