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Big Easy a bit uneasy as Mardi Gras returns

New Orleans' party goes on, but worries linger and signs of loss are seen
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Costumes were donned, beads were tossed and spectators cheered as the city launched into its initial festivities leading up to the first Mardi Gras after Katrina.

But everywhere, hints could be seen of the hurricane's devastating impact. And some visitors were left wondering: Would the event be safe? How well could a police department with 250 fewer officers than last year handle the crowds?

“We wanted to go if we could be assured the city was going to be safe,” said Anne Greenfield, who came with her husband and children, ages 9 and 11, from Lubbock, Texas. “We talked to friends living there a lot before we decided.”

The Big Easy asked similar questions in November and concluded that it could indeed stage a safe Mardi Gras.

That decision will be put to the test over the next few days, with New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebration in full swing.

“I don’t expect any problem,” said police spokesman Capt. Juan Quinton. “We don’t know the number of people that will be on the streets, but we pride ourselves in the safety of Mardi Gras, and we’ll work very hard to make sure that record isn’t marred this year.”

A first round of Carnival parades went off last weekend with no trouble, and the Mardi Gras season began in earnest Thursday night as more parades lumbered down historic St. Charles Ave., where all parades will be limited this year. Crowds were smaller and more local, than usual.

Sprinkled amid the fun were unavoidable reminders of a profound loss — including more than 1,000 deaths and close to 2,000 still missing in the aftermath of the Aug. 29 storm that flattened this vibrant, if troubled, city and a wide swath of the Gulf Coast.

Empty float honors lossesThe first sign appeared Thursday night, when the biggest of three parades to roll, the all-woman Krewe of Muses parade, culminated with an empty float to symbolize the area’s victims.

The float, named Mnemosyne after the Greek goddess of memory and mother of the muses, was draped in black, with a swirl of gray and white bedecked with blue flowers. Above it was a banner reading, “We celebrate life, we mourn the past, we shall never forget.”

The nearly nonstop revelry, music and partying will reach its boozy, bawdy climax on Fat Tuesday, the final day of celebration before Ash Wednesday and the solemn Lenten season.

A float in the Krewe of Chaos Mardi Gras parade pokes fun at some of New Orleans troubles during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans on Thursday Feb. 23, 2006.Alex Brandon / AP

“There are not as many people here as in the past, but I think there are a lot more on the way,” said Mark Page, a New Orleans resident of 16 years who was bedecked in a large, colorful hat and wore glasses with flashing lights. “I think the city will really be jammed.”

Will it? Local medical officials said the number could reach 400,000, less than half the usual 1 million. Such details are of particular concern to them: Only two of the city’s nine hospital emergency rooms are operating for adults. And those, as well as suburban ERs, are typically jammed, even without an influx of hundreds of thousands of revelers.

New Orleans emergency medical facilities in recent weeks have been seeing about 1,000 patients a day, and that will probably double and maybe triple during Mardi Gras, said James Aiken of the LSU Health Sciences Center.

Police face challengesTo help make things easier for the police department and other city resources, the city compressed the usual two weeks of parades into eight days, and designated a single route for all of the marches this year.

Another factor working in the department’s favor is that Mardi Gras, despite all the raucousness, is usually a remarkably safe event. Despite a 2004 shooting along a packed parade route that killed one person and wounded three others, most arrests are for public urination. Others get into trouble for public nudity, drunkenness or other petty crimes.

In fact, New Orleans police are known nationally for their crowd-control ability.

“The New Orleans Police Department is probably better than any other organization in the U.S. at policing an event like this,” said Rafael Goyeneche, director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a police watchdog group. “I think it’s because most of them grew up with Mardi Gras; they understand it because they’ve been attending since they were kids.”

New Orleans Police officer Kelly Vicknair keeps a lookout during a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans on Saturday Feb. 18, 2006. The City of New Orleans determined it could stage a safe Mardi Gras and now that decision will be put to the test over the next few days, with New Orleans' Mardi Gras celebration in full swing.Alex Brandon / AP

Still, the police face challenges. The department’s ranks have shrunk from 1,700 before the storm to 1,450, though Quinton noted to the Times-Picayune newspaper that as recently as the mid-1990s, the department handled Mardi Gras with as few as 1,200 officers.

A larger concern might be overtime for officers, many of whom still vividly recall the strain put on their resources in the days after Katrina, when they worked with minimal resources and strained morale. Normally the 11-day festival would leave the rank and file taking home extra-large paychecks, but it is not clear where the financially ravaged city will get the money for the estimated $1.4 million in overtime costs.

All officers typically work 12-hour shifts during Mardi Gras. This year, police hope the parades move fast enough to allow many officers to work regular eight-hour shifts. Officers in hotspots such as the French Quarter, where the wildest revelry runs almost nonstop from Friday until midnight Tuesday, will still put in 12 hours.

Lingering concernsThe city also hoped to get as many as four corporate sponsors to pay $2 million each to underwrite Mardi Gras and cover cleanup, crowd control and other expenses, but the plan fell through.

Glad Products Co. did agree to provide 100,000 trash bags and organize volunteers for a post-Carnival cleanup, and gave an undisclosed amount of money. In addition, one parade club donated $50,000 to the police department.

Some residents in the hurricane-ravaged city were questioning whether a celebration was appropriate. In the hard-hit lower Ninth Ward, where Katrina floodwaters lifted some homes off foundations and left them in heaps in the middle of streets, work began Thursday to haul away a huge red barge that landed smack in the midst of the nearly obliterated neighborhood and became an icon for the waste laid to the city's poorer areas.

Still, Ninth Ward resident Percy Branon was in no mood to party. “I think we’ve got far more important things to do than fooling with Mardi Gras,” he said as a friend used a push broom to shove debris off Branon’s roof. “I don’t think that should be permanent, but this year, I think we should have overlooked it — try to get to some of this work that needs to be done.”

But French Quarter resident Buckner Harris was ready for a bit of levity to come swaggering down the street: “It gives most people something to do and take their minds off the tragedy.”