TOPICS > World

Subdued Mardi Gras Returns to Big Easy

February 24, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

SPOKESPERSON: Congratulations, sir.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dennis Van Geffen has been waiting for this day for 30 years. In just a matter of minutes, the 49-year-old computer software engineer was transformed into a Mardi Gras king– King Gup of the Carrollton Krewe, a New Orleans social club established in 1924.

GROUP: Hail Carrollton.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The 50 clubs that put on the Mardi Gras parades are called Krewes. Like so many people in New Orleans, the Krewes suffered terrible losses. In just one alone, ten people died; 80 percent of the rest lost their homes. With so much devastation and loss, some people in New Orleans questioned whether there should be a Mardi Gras at all this year. But people like Van Geffen, whose own house was flooded, thought it was important to go ahead.

DENNIS VAN GEFFEN: It’s a shot in the arm both for morale, and it’s also a shot in the arm for the economy. It’s to show the rest of the country that, yes, New Orleans is not flooded anymore. New Orleans is coming back and it’s coming back tremendously.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Monk Boudreaux is a jazz musician and chief of one of the so-called Mardi Gras Indian tribes. There are about 40 such tribes made up of working class African-Americans. They march through the streets on Fat Tuesday, the last day of celebration before the season of Lent begins. The Mardi Gras Indians are known for their elaborate hand-sewn costumes.

MONK BOUDREAUX: Mardi Gras is a time to put all your little problems on the side, all your jobs on the side, and come down and have a good time and enjoy yourself, ’cause that’s what you’re going to have.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Why is that important this year?

MONK BOUDREAUX: Because we suffered a great loss, you know. So we don’t have to sit down and cry about it. I mean, it’s over, it’s gone. It’s finished. You gotta go on with life. (music)

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And life did go on. Last weekend, to the delight of thousands of grateful residents who cheered, clapped and shouted for beads, the parades rolled down St. Charles Avenue toward the French Quarter.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What does Mardi Gras mean to you this year?

VICKI PETITFILS: It means getting back to normal, having something that we’re used to and we’ve lost so much of that.

AL PETITFILS: It’s time to have a good time again. We’ve all had a really bad time. A lot of people lost their houses. We lost our house. We lost everything. And so, this is just, you know, something to get back to a little bit of normalcy.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Does it really feel normal?

AL PETITFILS: Yeah, it does.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And there was the normal amount of money spent by the Krewes, who pay entirely for the events, literally throwing thousands of dollars in beads and trinkets from the floats. They also pay for their own costumes. Arthur Hardy is a Mardi Gras historian.

ARTHUR HARDY: And I’ve likened it to going to New York and Broadway and you’re in line to buy your tickets for a play and the actors come out off the stage and say, “wait a minute. Lemme dig in my pocket, I’m going to buy your ticket and you come on in, the show’s on us. And by the way, we’re going to give you free gifts to take home.” And that’s what we do. Now, where else in the world do you have that kind of entertainment venue?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But it’s it not all free. Police protection and clean-up are still a local government responsibility in a city that is broke. Normally, the city spends more than $3 million on police overtime during Mardi Gras, so this year the city limited the number of parades, routes and participants to keep the cost down to just over a million.

Police Chief Warren Riley is so far breathing a sigh of relief because there was no overtime last weekend.

WARREN RILEY: The crowds were very, very good. We didn’t have any incidents, no significant arrests of any sort. It was very peaceful, very pleasant, well attended, but not the crowd that we normally would have had the first weekend, but still very well attended.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: An effort to find a $2 million corporate sponsor to pay for police protection and clean-up failed, but business leaders think Mardi Gras could bring in $200 million over the next few days. Stephen Perry heads the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

STEPHEN PERRY: Having Mardi Gras, what it does is it allows us to rebuild the city’s finances. It allows us to rebuild the jobs that the people of this community depend on. And it allows us to pave the way to bring the families that aren’t back home yet back home. Most people don’t realize that unlike other American cities, one third of the budget of the entire city of New Orleans comes from the hospitality and tourism industry. For us, this is about pure economic power.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But some people hit hardest by Katrina resent that Mardi Gras is going on at all. These three women were left homeless by the storm and are currently living in a house sponsored by a non-profit group.

DONNA BANKS: We’re trying to encourage each other that it’s going to be okay. Although we’ve lived under the bridge, treated like scum, living in our own residue, now we are in the shelter here and we are trying to inspire, give everyone inspiration to know that our lives will be okay. But it won’t be with us out there at Mardi Gras.

KAY WILLLIAMSON: We have no hot water here. Women are suffering. This is like living in a third world country, but I’m in America.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And they say Mardi Gras revelers won’t get the message that people are still suffering.

TRISHA ROBERTS: They come from all over the world and they don’t know what it is down here. You know, when they come down here they’re going to see the real deal. Okay? You’re going to see the real deal. You go to Mardi Gras, you spend your money, you have a good time and get your beads. But come down here, come down here.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Float builder Barry Barth has another concern. He’s worried that when lawmakers in Washington see all the images of people having a good time, they may want to tighten their purse strings.

BARRY BARTH: When it comes across in the media, with everybody on Bourbon Street and so on drinking and partying, I think it’s going to have a double effect. They’re going to think, “Well, these guys aren’t too bad. They’re not hurt too bad. Look, you know, they’re happy.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Mardi Gras parades have taken note of the plight of hurricane victims. One float paid homage to the heroic rescue attempts made during Katrina. But some of the parades did have a little fun at the expense of the state and federal government.

And Dennis Van Geffen’s Carrollton Krewe based its entire parade around the theme “Blue Roof Blues,” a reference to the blue tarps still on top of damaged rooftops all over the city.

ARTHUR HARDY: The time for mourning is over. We’ve had the funeral. We’ve got to get out of this Katrina funk and we’ve got to move on. And this is our first big kick off to the moving on portion. (Music)

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Most hotels in downtown New Orleans are booked as Mardi Gras swings into high gear this weekend. It may be smaller and more subdued this year, but many people think it’s a miracle it’s happening at all. (Music)