A Mardi Gras That Means More

A jester outside Harrah's casino in New Orleans is ready for the festivities to begin. The casino reopened Friday for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.
A jester outside Harrah's casino in New Orleans is ready for the festivities to begin. The casino reopened Friday for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. (By Shannon Stapleton -- Reuters)
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 18, 2006

NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 17 -- Against a backdrop of crumbled neighborhoods, stressed-out residents and a crippled economic landscape, Mardi Gras, the city's world-famous pre-Lenten carnival, officially kicks off in Orleans Parish at noon Saturday.

To a lot of New Orleanians, this year's Mardi Gras is about more than the annual party -- it is a sign of hope for the city's future. "If they were going to take Mardi Gras away from us, everybody would have left and nobody would have come back," said Chappy Hardy, a local filmmaker who has made a documentary about Mardi Gras.

He and other residents said many here are embracing Mardi Gras like never before, with many homes decorated in the Mardi Gras hues of green, gold and purple.

That may be so for locals. But tourists will have trouble embracing the 11-day celebration this year because they cannot find a place to stay. Before Hurricane Katrina flooded much of New Orleans, 38,000 hotel rooms were available, said Sandra S. Shilstone of the city's tourism department. Now there are 25,000 rentable rooms, and 10,000 of those are occupied by construction workers and evacuees. Most of the downtown shops and restaurants are open, but many are not.

"It's a challenge," Shilstone said of the balancing act of wanting the world, on one hand, to see a festive New Orleans that is a mecca for culture and pleasure and, on the other hand, to witness the city's unfathomable loss of lives, livelihoods and property.

Shilstone said that more than 800 members of the media will be on hand to report on the juxtaposition of celebration and devastation. The hurricane hit Aug. 29; Fat Tuesday, the culmination of Mardi Gras festivities, is Feb. 28, a full six months later. Over the next 11 days, that media horde will have ample opportunity to take stock of the devastation and how far recovery still has to go.

Historically, Mardi Gras has been a huge boon for New Orleans's tourism-dependent economy. In recent years, the festival has raked in more than $1 billion annually, Shilstone said. In 2003, staging the whole series of events cost the city about $4.6 million and resulted in $21.5 million in tax revenue. Over the two-week period, about a million people visited the area. This year, Shilstone said, it is impossible to predict the size of the crowd. But there are hopeful signs: From the French Quarter to the Garden District, which are some of the least damaged areas, sidewalks are filling with tourists -- enough to give some club and restaurant owners optimism.

Still, symbolic of the city's new life of lowered expectations, this year's schedule of festivities is shorter and more compact than usual. The first event, for instance, will be a parade featuring a handful of social clubs -- known as krewes in Mardi Gras lingo. Historically, each of those five krewes would have staged its own parade of floats. (Even the word "float," local folks point out, sounds darkly ironic under the circumstances.) The parade route in New Orleans has been shortened and changed to make it easier on police.

More than two dozen krewes are planning to parade in New Orleans proper, staying pretty much on wide-open and accessible St. Charles and Canal streets. Surrounding areas, all of which have been dramatically reengineered by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and their aftermaths, are also altering their plans. A number of parades have been canceled. One event in nearby Metairie was called off at the last minute because of insurance problems.

The celebration has its own traditions and language. Mardi Gras in the New Orleans area dates at least to 1699, when the French claimed a piece of land on the Mississippi River and named it Mardi Gras Point, according to Arthur Hardy's Mardi Gras Guide, a $5 visitor's bible sold just about everywhere. The French liked wearing masks and acting out; the Spanish did not. Shortly after New Orleans became an American city in 1803, masquerading in the streets was legalized. The first known krewe, Comus, dates to 1857. Comus and two other age-old clubs that accepted only white members stopped parading in the early 1990s when the City Council passed a resolution granting parade permits only to groups that were open to everyone. Today there are superkrewes, such as Endymion, which will have 2,200 riders on 33 floats. Some krewes can be quite expensive to join. Orpheus, for instance, requires a $500 initiation fee and an $800 float-rider fee. Float riders wear theme costumes and toss trinkets, called throws, such as plastic doubloons or beads.

Many celebrants eat king cake -- a dessert with a plastic baby hidden in one of the slices -- and drink all forms of alcoholic concoctions. Some floats are flanked by torch bearers known as flambeaux.

The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a black krewe dating to the early 1900s that oversees several community outreach programs throughout the year, will parade through the city on Fat Tuesday. The krewe has lost 10 members since last year, according to its vice president, Naaman C. Stewart, 40. He is convinced that many died because of post-Katrina stress. "And we have members we still haven't heard from."

Blaine Kern, an enthusiastic artist and entrepreneur who has built up a multimillion-dollar float-crafting enterprise in Algiers, just across the river, said that despite all the tragedy, he expects this year's fete to be fantastic. "You won't be able to tell a bit of difference between this year and last year," predicted Kern, 78. "The floats will look better."

He said that the floats of the 134-year-old krewe Rex were damaged during the flooding. Asked if Mardi Gras visitors will be able to tell that they have been repaired when Rex parades on the morning of Fat Tuesday, Kern smiled, pounded his fist on his desk and said: "I should have left the watermark on one!"


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