- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Once every year, Eve Marie Stocker, an otherwise sensible D.C. attorney for the Department of Labor, dons a satin costume with a sequin mask and boards a “Krewe of Iris” float to toss “throws” to the carnival masses in New Orleans.

“I burn up my annual leave every year,” said the New Orleans native, as she touches her Fleur de Lis lapel pin, a memento of her membership in the city’s largest and oldest parade organization for women.

This year’s march to Mardi Gras, the first since Hurricane Katrina left the city a shell of its rip-roaring self, may be smaller and a little more somber, but for Miss Stocker and the residents who’ve returned, it will remain a celebration of family, friends and the city’s guests.

“It’s not going to help for everyone to crawl up into a ball,” said Miss Stocker, whose Alexandria town house is blanketed with the colors of Mardi Gras — purple, yellow and green — and flies the season’s flag.

“Do people think it’s insensitive? Yes. People died. But you have to move on. It will be very emotional. So much is riding on this,” she said.

City leaders, who said before the floodwaters even had receded that Mardi Gras festivities would occur, hope that this year’s scaled-down version, the 150th, will be the first step back to carnivals that attract 1 million visitors and generate more than $1 billion for the local economy.

“We do expect crowds to be incrementally less that 1 million. However, we do anticipate the crowds to be sizable,” said Erica R. Papillion, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Bob Wangler of Bourbon Street Balcony in the French Quarter said his private party rooms have been sold out.

“People are coming,” he said. “No one is saying not to go. We should have a Mardi Gras, and we will have a Mardi Gras.”

Of the 36,000 New Orleans hotel rooms before Katrina hit, about 27,000 are back in operation, some of which still are housing displaced citizens and recovery workers.

But a spokesman for the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association predicts that more rooms will become available closer to when the festivities begin as more families and workers vacate the rooms.

“Everyone’s scrambling for rooms,” said Katherine Young, general manager of the Chateau LeMoyne hotel. “I think everybody is just about full.”

New Orleans has canceled or limited the seasonal Christian celebration only thirteen times in the past 149 years, primarily during the war years. If Easter is six weeks away, Fat Tuesday is on.

This year, 28 krewes, or social clubs, will hold parades on a shortened route, down from 34 last year, on eight days instead of the typical 12. For the first time, New Orleans has asked for corporate sponsors to help defray the costs of police overtime and trash collection.

The city typically provides those services, but the actual parades — from float decorations, the gaudy handmade satin costumes, the feathers and batons, the 20 gross of beads, stuffed animals and trinkets — are purchased by each krewe with money collected through dues.

“This is money out of our pocket,” said Miss Stocker, 40, who will parade Feb. 25 alongside her mother, Cheryl.

And while drinking is part of the party, it’s prohibited on floats.

“On the float, we have to wear our masks at all times, and there’s no drinking allowed,” she said, laughing.

Miss Stocker recalls what was lost in New Orleans in the hurricane: homes of friends who came to Virginia to crash at her house, jobs. Her mother was lucky — her home in Algiers, on the West Bank, across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, was spared.

Now, she is set to return, eat jambalaya and crawfish, dance to Cajun music and smell the andouille sausage and oyster po’ boys and throw the plush.

After all, she said, “The sun always shines on Iris. She’s the goddess of the rainbow.”

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