- The Washington Times - Friday, February 17, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Less than half of its hotels are open, and the majority of its residents have yet to return. But this is the 150th anniversary of Mardi Gras, and for those struggling to breathe life back into the Big Easy, the music and madness of America’s most famous festival must go on.

“We don’t know how many’s gonna come,” said Blaine Kern, a world-renowned Mardi Gras parade float builder and 49-year veteran of the festival. “But I want you to know, we’re doing this for us. We’re going to go on the streets regardless if anybody comes.”

The first parade kicked off last night replete with marching brass bands, beaded necklaces and flashy floats. Six more are scheduled today and more than 25 will occur between now and the end of the carnival season on Feb. 28.

Arthur Hardy, a fifth-generation New Orleanian and leading Mardi Gras historian, called it “almost a miracle” that it is going forward this year and said “it has to happen” to refresh New Orleans’ image after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

“Anybody who’s seen the footage of New Orleans, they’re gonna see floats now in the same place that they saw skiffs and motorboats after the storm,” he said.

Mardi Gras aficionados say they honestly don’t know how many people will show up this year. Officials estimated about a million were among the crushing mobs that lined the blocks around Canal Street downtown last year on Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras’ climax on the last day before the start of Lent — the six-week Catholic fasting period leading up to Easter.

But that was before floodwaters unleashed by Katrina six months ago sparked anarchy and a full-scale evacuation of the city. Life and business have since returned to downtown and the city’s famed French Quarter, but sagging houses ravaged by mold, mud and debris are all that remain of entire sections of New Orleans proper.

City officials estimate about 200,000 people have returned to the livable sections, compared with the 485,000 that was the population before Katrina. The statistics and damage are so staggering that heavy speculation has swirled around whether Mardi Gras parades should be held at all this year.

In the past 150 years, the parades have been canceled only 13 times. A police strike in 1979 was the most recent. There were no parades for various years during the Korean War, World Wars I and II and the Civil War, although Confederate soldiers from New Orleans threw their own Mardi Gras party in Virginia in 1862.

But the carnival has never been canceled because of a natural disaster.

Angele Davis, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, said while many have questioned why New Orleans would host Mardi Gras when so many people are grieving and still not able to return to their homes, the money it will draw is essential to the city’s rebirth.

“While some may look at Mardi Gras as merely a party, our industry looks at it as a much-needed economic engine that will help us create jobs and provide revenue through taxes that will allow us to implement important plans that are vital to bringing our citizens back home again,” she said.

Before Katrina, tourism was New Orleans’ largest industry, creating about $5.5 billion in business annually, with 10 million visitors flocking to the city each year, contributing directly to more than 80,000 jobs, Miss Davis said. Mardi Gras alone brought in an average of about $1.6 billion.

As of this month, about 100 hotels have reopened citywide, down from 265 before the storm. While Louis Armstrong International Airport is now landing 74 flights a day — compared with 166 before the storm — the city is bracing for a massive crowd over the next 10 days. Work crews were out along Canal Street yesterday, constructing large parade-viewing stands in front of major hotels that have opened.

But whether tens of thousands of tourists converge here or not as Fat Tuesday approaches, locals say the heart and soul of the carnival is intact.

Mr. Kern is known here as “Mr. Mardi Gras” for his family-run company’s decades-old reputation as the world’s largest and most respected parade float builder. He said nothing could stop the parades from going on this year because Mardi Gras is “so incredibly woven into the very fabric that we are.”

“People think of Mardi Gras as that one day, but it’s really year-round,” he said, adding that about 35,000 New Orleanians belong to “krewes,” or social clubs, whose floats roll through the streets during the parades in neighborhoods around the city.

Krewes sink as much as $60,000 into their ornate floats and colorful costumes, with themes ranging from dragon heads to magic genies. Each float may have up to 50 people on it, and a tradition of many krewes is to elect a queen chosen from among krewe members’ daughters or granddaughters.

Traditionally, the names of the future queens are carved somewhere on the float when the girls are born.

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