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Mardi Gras rolls in, smaller but undeterred

First post-Katrina celebration sticks to tradition, draws some criticism
/ Source: The Associated Press

One reveler dressed as a sandbag. Others came as maggots. There were costumes fashioned from blue tarps like those used to cover damaged roofs, and a group of people dressed as blind men with T-shirts that read: “Levee Inspectors.”

New Orleans’ first Mardi Gras since Hurricane Katrina evoked wicked satire in the Big Easy on Tuesday, six months after the storm struck the Gulf Coast in a catastrophe that ultimately killed more than 1,300 people.

Kevin and Marie Barre of New Orleans wore white coveralls bearing the spray-painted “X” that denotes a home that has been searched for bodies. “It’s a reminder. A lot of people who are coming down here don’t understand what we’ve been through,” Kevin Barre said.

Even amid the typical debauchery — including early morning drinking, flashes of bare breasts and skimpy costumes in the French Quarter — there was no escaping reminders of the storm, beginning with the smaller-than-usual crowds along the parade route.

Zulu, the 97-year-old Mardi Gras club, or krewe, that lost 10 members to Katrina, paraded amid homes that still bear dirty brown water marks from the floodwaters that covered 80 percent of the city. Another krewe, Rex, King of Carnival, paraded past a boarded-up store bearing a spray-painted warning that looters would be shot.

“I lost everything,” Andrew Hunter, 42, said as he sat on the steps of his ruined home on Jackson Avenue. “But what the heck. This helps us keep our spirits up, and we need all the help we can get with that.”

A club called the Krewe of MRE covered themselves with brown labels from the Meals Ready to Eat that were served to thousands who huddled in the Superdome after the storm.

Mayor Ray Nagin, wearing a black beret and camouflage uniform, portrayed cigar-chomping Gen. Russell Honore, the military man who led the first big relief convoy into the city.

“It’s been absolutely — I don’t know how to describe it — great,” Nagin said of the party. “Katrina did a lot of bad things. But it has done something to give New Orleanians a fresh love for their city.”

Along an Uptown parade route, a family who lost their Lakeview home to flooding poked fun at former FEMA director Michael Brown. Jenny Louis, her husband, Ross, and their three children strolled around in all-brown costumes, similar to the uniforms worn by UPS drivers. Printed on their backs: “What Did Brown Do For You Today?”

After the parades, Bourbon Street was crowded with hard-drinking revelers. Police on horseback generally clear the street at midnight, although the party often continues in French Quarter bars into the early hours of Ash Wednesday.

Smaller crowdsDespite partly sunny weather and temperatures in the 70s, the crowds were smaller than usual in a city that still has less than half its pre-storm population of almost a half-million. Finding a prime parade-watching spot was not hard.

“We came out about 5 this morning and had no trouble getting a good spot,” said Tammi Harlan, 56, of Metairie. “We’ve been coming to this spot for about 20 years, but normally the guys come the night before to make sure we get it.”

Rachel Morgan from Pensacola, Fla., laughs at as she surveys the scene in the French Quarter of New Orleans on Monday Feb. 27, 2006. With Mardi Gras only a day away, crowds are streaming into the French Quarter.Alex Brandon / AP

Traditions held. About 160 members of clarinetist Pete Fountain’s Half Fast Marching club had breakfast at the shuttered Commander’s Palace restaurant before heading down the parade route — but without Fountain, who is ill and missed what would have been his 46th trip with the group. The celebrated musician is 75.

Visitors included New Orleans native Donald Rooney, now of Denver, who wore a purple, green and gold fright wig.

Mardi Gras is about “helping the city rebuild,” he said. “It’s my hometown. There’s still a great soul that lives in the city that 10 feet, 12 feet of water can’t kill, and it’s coming back.”

Lissette Sutton, owner of a French Quarter souvenir store, said she hoped the celebration would show the world the city can handle tourists again.

“I had a lady come in over the weekend who said she actually brought a can of Lysol because she was convinced there would be mold in her hotel room. She was delighted to see how clean it is,” Sutton said.