- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Carnival has kicked into high gear in this half-empty, debris-strewn city, where many revelers dancing their troubles away are natives who have returned for the first time since being scattered by Hurricane Katrina floodwaters.

“This is a good reason to come back to see Mardi Gras and then to see the destruction for the first time in person,” said Tammy Nero, 41, a third-generation New Orleanian who has been living in Atlanta for the past six months.

For Kirk Vosloh, 49, this year’s 150th anniversary of Mardi Gras festivities broke the monotony of the area’s recovery and pumped some money into the economy.

“It’s good for people to party,” said Mr. Vosloh, who was born in New Orleans and grew up in suburban Metairie, La. “It’s good for your health, it really is.”

But for tens of thousands enjoying parades held across the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, from Pass Christian, Miss., to Mobile, Ala., and in New Orleans, the party culminates today with Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday.

The excesses of the past two weeks of carnival officially end at midnight when Ash Wednesday arrives, marking the start of Lent — the six-week Catholic fasting period leading up to Easter — and, for locals, the return to rebuilding.

Entire sections of New Orleans remain deserted. About 41 percent of the city’s pre-Katrina population has returned, an estimated 200,000 of 485,000. More than 215,000 houses were destroyed.

Officials are banking on revenue from this year’s Mardi Gras parades to spark the city’s hurricane-wrecked economy.

“I can safely say through Mardi Gras that of the 15,000 remaining rooms, that about 98 percent of them are occupied by tourists,” said Darrius Gray, president of the Greater New Orleans Hotel Association and general manager of the Holiday Inn French Quarter.

Officials say that translates to nearly $500,000 a day in tax revenue for the city.

About 25,000 hotel rooms are functioning in New Orleans, compared with 38,000 before Katrina. An estimated 10,000 of them are occupied by reconstruction workers, contractors and displaced citizens.

New Orleans police said crowds are considerably smaller this year, but the number of revelers cramming the intersection of Bourbon and Canal streets has swelled steadily since Mardi Gras festivities began last week with the first of more than two dozen krewes, or social clubs, parading variously themed floats through downtown.

The parades have gone on day and night through the weekend, though scaled back in size and number from last year when 34 separate krewes showed off floats and ornate costumes and threw colorful beads to the crowd.

The funniest, and notably most politically satirical parade floats rolled down Canal Street toward the French Quarter on Friday night. Le Krewe D’Etat drew laughter and loud cheers with floats poking fun at public officials.

One targeting Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco bore the message: “Blanco Boxing, Great White Mope.”

Another carried the message “Looter Shooting, U-Loot, We Shoot.” Another, fronted by a large volleyball, posed the question of whom to blame for the multitude of levee breaches that resulted in the city’s flooding, saying: “Breach Volleyball, Who Dropped It?”

With more than 1,400 city police and 150 state troopers on duty, New Orleans police spokesman Capt. Juan Quinton said there were no major crime incidents through the weekend.

“A lot of people are having entirely too much to drink,” he said. “That’s our biggest problem.”

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