/ 28 February 2006

Mardi Gras breathes life back into the Big Easy

Six months after hurricane Katrina flushed the life out of New Orleans, Mardi Gras has brought fun back to the Big Easy.

The once-abandoned French Quarter was filled with rowdy revelers stumbling down the middle of the street, tripping over beer bombs and broken beads.

The rich sounds of brass bands bounced off the freeway overpasses where thousands of desperate people had taken shelter from the rising water.

Shop windows that had been smashed by looters were filled with souvenirs in the city’s Mardi Gras colours of purple, gold and green.

”Six months ago if you’d told me we would be here I’d say there’s no way,” said Jan Cogan (54) as she ducked a clump of beads tossed past her head. ”I think it’s great.”

On Ash Wednesday, the party will stop and locals will go back to dealing with insurance adjustors, roof repairs and the messy slog through a seemingly endless swamp of government bureaucracy.

But for a few festive days, there were other things to think about. Like which party to go to first and who was wearing the better costume.

Elaine Hankton (45) lost her home, her sister and her brother-in-law to Katrina.

But she’s not thinking about that right now. Instead, she’s laughing and having a barbecue with friends she hasn’t seen since the hurricane.

They’ve been coming to the same spot on St. Charles Avenue for decades and this year wasn’t going to be any different.

”This is our life right here,” she said, pointing to the people around her. ”If we didn’t have Mardi Gras we’d really be sad.”

The crowds have been much thinner for the Big Easy’s 150th Mardi Gras festival.

With more than half the population still scattered across the country and just a fraction of the city’s hotel rooms available for tourists, it was inevitable.

Business is down sharply from last year, shopkeepers and restaurant owners said. And with rents on the rise, many are fearful that they may not make it until next year.

”Mardi Gras is like a path for New Orleans to let people know we’re still here,” said souvenir shopkeeper Mike Sadhwaini.

March will be the true test of the city’s comeback, he said.

Tourism is the largest industry in New Orleans accounting for 40% of the city’s tax revenue and $5,5-billion a year. And Mardi Gras is the city’s biggest draw: it usually bring in about a million people and over a billion dollars.

City officials have not released estimates as to the size of the crowds this year, but are willing to consider the nearly trouble-free festival a success.

”We didn’t know what to expect, but this has been a wonderful Mardi Gras,” said Sandra Shilstone, president of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation. ”It’s been a boost to the economy and to the spirits of the populace.”

Mardi Gras was supposed to be a sign that New Orleans is back in business. It was also, said the city’s colorful mayor, a chance for the city to shake off its collective ”pity party”.

The change in the city’s mood was apparent. Just a week ago, faces were drawn taunt with stress and anxiety. Smiles are coming easier now, even though everyone knows there is still a lot of work left to be done.

Those who stray outside the French Quarter and Garden District find entire neighborhoods abandoned to the mould and rot that followed floodwaters that lingered for weeks.

Deadened traffic lights have been replaced with stop signs. Houses that were knocked off their foundations remain crumbled in the middle of the street.

Most people expect it will be years before the city looks normal again. Few think it will ever be the same.

While many locals are fearful that the city will be rebuilt into a theme-park version of itself, New Orleans still two important things going for it.

The people who have come back love their city. And there’s no place else in the world like it. – AFP