New Orleans Puts On Mask for Mardi Gras

A jazz band takes part in Mardi Gras festivities.
A jazz band takes part in Mardi Gras festivities. (By Sean Gardner -- Reuters)
By Linton Weeks and Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 27 -- Mardi Gras revelers along St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street Monday night and over the weekend whooped for the marching bands, hollered for celebrities such as Dan Aykroyd, applauded the lavish floats and cried out for the trappings and trinkets tossed by costumed riders as they had for decades, but behind all the merriment and the masks something was missing.

New Orleanians are tired. They are distracted. On the face of it, they seem normal and as lighthearted as ever. But they are not. And so it is with Mardi Gras -- the two-week pre-Lenten celebration that ends Tuesday, "Fat Tuesday." It is exuberant on the outside, strange and different and diminished by loss on the inside.

"What is there to celebrate?" asked Elphamous Malbrue, a 29-year veteran of the New Orleans police as he watched the Krewe of Hermes parade. "The spirit is just not here."

Members of the Orpheus Krewe -- Mardi Gras lingo for social club -- began to gather late afternoon Monday. John Beninate, the parade marshal, said that the krewe's original theme, planned way before Hurricane Katrina, was the "Power of Nature." But after the hurricane, "we had to rewrite the whole theme," he said. "It had to do with floods washing away things. We had to tone that down a bit."

They changed the theme to "Signs and Superstitions" and signed up movie stars Steven Seagal and Josh Hartnett to ride on floats.

As the krewes of Orpheus and Proteus prepared to parade, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club -- which holds its parade on Fat Tuesday along with the krewe of Rex -- staged its annual festival on the banks of the Mississippi River. The African American krewe was especially hard-hit by Katrina. Last year there were 600 members, said festival chairman Cornelius Garner Jr. Today the club is in touch with about 250 of its members. Ten have died since the hurricane. "This festival offers a distraction to the people," Garner said.

Other New Orleanians said they were going to participate in Mardi Gras, but there is a great sense of absence. "There are worlds of friends I miss," said former congresswoman Lindy Boggs, whose Bourbon Street house was damaged by wind and water. She is living in a nearby hotel.

"The culture is not there," said Detroit Brooks, 50, guitarist in the Charmaine Neville Band. "They are throwing the beads. But it's not there."

Letting the good times roll allowed the city to mask some of the dismal statistics about the recovery. Parts of the city are in good repair, but not far away, whole neighborhoods are obliterated. Canal Street is lit up like a midway at night, but large areas of Gentilly and the Lower Ninth Ward still don't have electricity. Scads of workers poured beers, sold hot dogs, served fine meals, but many New Orleanians are out of work and far from home.

The city's sidewalks were crowded but far from overflowing, with officials estimating that 300,000 people were in town for the celebration. In recent years 1 million would have come. The number of flights arriving and departing from the city's main airport has been cut in half. And although the hotels for Mardi Gras were nearly full, that's largely because thousands of the rooms are occupied by workers and displaced residents. About one-third of the city's restaurants have reopened. Not everybody is eating in fancy cafes: The Red Cross is serving 6,500 meals a day here.

Mardi Gras celebrations were shorter this year and to the point. Most parades followed a truncated route that began in the west part of town and wound up downtown. It was more of a family affair this year. Along the tree-lined streets of Uptown and the Garden District, friends and relatives pitched tents and children perched atop specially designed step ladders.

The Krewe of Mid-City wove along the route on Sunday with half its regular contingent of floats. Many were skirted with blue tarp -- the same kind that still covers roofs here -- because of flood damage. What they lacked in material perfection, they sought to make up in satire. One float was called "Drove My Chevy to the Levee, but the Levee Was Gone," and another was "Rowed Hard and Put Up Wet."

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