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Blog #22 - Mardi Gras breaths life into New Orleans

February 25, 2006

The sights and smells of a broken New Orleans after Katrina last September are forever burned into my memory, but they have been supplanted by the last few days of festive crowds and parades for Mardi Gras. Streets are clogged with traffic and legal parking spaces are worth their weight in gold. Hotels are full and finding a room in the limited number available has been impossible for the last week. I-10 is clogged with traffic eastbound from the New Orleans airport into downtown.

It is heartening to feel the positive energy of everyone around you. A lot of folks have been able to forget, if for only a brief period, Katrina and the massive rebuilding effort that remains. The total devastation of the upper and lower 9th wards and the street upon street of sad empty storm-damaged homes in St. Bernard, Gentilly, Lakeview and other neighborhoods remain, but for a brief period people can party and smile. Mardi Gras is a spring tonic that

Several “krewes” or carnival groups prepare gaudily decorated floats, and several parades are held each day of Mardi Gras. Each krewe may have 30 or more floats in it, interspersed with high school marching bands, fire trucks, police cars and jazz bands on trailers. Routes and starting times are posted in the Times-Picayune, and barricades are set up to control traffic and pedestrians. Bleachers are set up along the route, and veteran parade-goers bring along step ladders to stand on above the crowds. Most step ladders have a wooden box bolted to the top to hold the parade beads and trinkets thrown from the floats to the crowds.

A group of us went to the Lafayette Park area along St. Charles for the Thursday night parade featuring the floats of three krewes. The floats were wonderful, and we were like little kids shouting out to the people on the floats to throw us Mardi Gras beads. It was a festive atmosphere, but the crowds were disappointingly small. We were standing behind one of the barricades along the street when one of the guards invited us up to one of the bleachers right across the street from the parade announcer.

“We don’t have tickets for the bleachers,” we said.

“That’s OK. We want a few more people to help fill them up. They’re nearly empty, so bleacher seats are on the house tonight,” the guard said.

Only about half of the first row of seats was filled, and the remaining 5 rows were empty. We had a great time, collected lots of beads, but I wondered if the sparse crowds were going to continue for the rest of Mardi Gras.

I shouldn’t have been concerned. The flood-gates opened on Friday and every parade since has been mobbed. Last night, Sunday, the crowds filled every bleacher seat and were 10 deep along St. Charles. Rain on Saturday had caused the Krewe of Endymion to be postponed a day, so Sunday evening featured both the Krewes of Bacchus and Endymion parading back to back, going well past midnight. The Grand Marshall for Bacchus was Michael Keaton, and Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi were featured celebrities for Endymion.

Both parades were supposed to go right by our hotel where we would have had a great view from the balcony, but the routes were changed. Some of our group walked the few blocks over to St. Charles where we joined the throng there just as the first floats came by. There was a joyful roar from the crowd as the floats went by, and strings of beads and other Mardi Gras favors and toys filled the air in a steady torrent.

My orange “Moxie” baseball cap prompted questions, as usual, and I met three families from the area who made us welcome in their tiny area at the curb between a light pole and the orange snow fence and police barricades lining the street.

They gave me a quick course on the history of Mardi Gras and the krewes. One of my hosts had been on one of the krewes and told me about the two or more years of hard work that went into a successful parade. Krewe membership is by invitation only, and members are expected to support the krewe by helping to decorate floats, riding on them to throw beads at the crowds, even to buying the “throws” of beads.

They also shared their Katrina stories with me.

“We are coming back,” said one couple from the Lake Shore area. “We’ve gutted our home and will start rebuilding it as soon as power comes back to our street.”

Another was a fisherman from Buras, and he said the crab fishing was better than ever and he was dividing his time between fishing and rebuilding his home that was heavily damaged by Katrina.

“How do you feel about Mardi Gras?” I asked. There had been some criticism that the festivities were too expensive, or too soon, or not appropriate for a city still grieving from Katrina.

“This is exactly what we need,” said the wife. “New Orleans is going to come alive again, and there is no better way to boost our spirits than Mardi Gras!”

The crowd burst into applause as the US Coast Guard float went by, complete with a miniature rescue helicopter and uniformed sailors. One of the looked directly at me and threw me a long string of red-white-and-blue beads, and gave me a thumbs up when I caught them. Of all the beads I caught from Mardi Gras, these will be my special ones to remember a very momentous few days.

Political commentary and lampooning public figures are prominent on many of the floats, and the Krewe of Chaos especially had huge figures of Michael Brown, Mayor Nagin, President Bush, Jesse Jackson, and others with very pointed and usually negative comments about FEMA, the Corps of Engineers, the mayor and governor. Conspicuous because of it absence was any criticism of the Red Cross. One float thanked the care-givers, including the Red Cross. My new parade-side friends had nothing but praise for all the Red Cross had done.

“We thank you all for coming down here, for leaving your homes and families, and helping us in our time of need. We’re coming back, but we couldn’t have done it without you, and you are here helping us now as we get back on our feet. We will never forget what you have done!”

Right there, with strings of bead raining down and the crowd roaring, I got a big hug and tears came to our eyes as we shared something wonderful – human kindness and compassion. It was a great parade, but an even better experience!