Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: New Orleans revives the spirit of Mardi Gras

Six months after one of America's worst storms devastated the southern city, its people are determined to prove that life may be getting back to some kind of normality. By David Usborne
Click to follow

Nobody is paying heed to the house on St Charles Avenue with the boarded-up windows and graffiti. The first of this year's Mardi Gras parades is about to roll by and it is time for marching-band music, for over-the-top costumes and wildly decorated floats. This crowd is ready to laugh and yell and snatch at strings of beads whirling through the air. It doesn't want reminders of loss and pain.

But it is there, even so. On one window a message reads: "Don't try. Sleeping inside with a big dog and an ugly woman, two shotguns and a claw hammer."

On the next window: "Still here, woman left Friday. Cooking a pot of dog gumbo." And finally: "Y'all come back for Carnival. I have my parade spot. Hey, throw something big, Mister."

The lament was written in the days after Hurricane Katrina struck - six months ago now - and even then the author knew what the city fathers of New Orleans took a little longer to accept. While holding Mardi Gras this year was always going to be problematic, cancelling it was never really an option.

There have been years when Carnival was scratched, for instance during the Second World War. Visit those parts of town obliterated by the storm and you will find folks who are offended that it is happening this year. More than 1,300 people died because of Katrina. Roughly 100,000 of the city's homes are wrecked. Two-thirds of the population has still not come home.

But the counter-argument prevailed. Perhaps what Robert Tallant wrote in his still-celebrated 1947 book Mardi Gras was right. "Mardi Gras is a spirit," he explained. "I believe it is an immortal one. It is certain that it is at least as immortal as Man's ability to make believe, to escape the dreariness of the everyday life that is most men's portion, to have fun, to laugh and to play."

No one on St Charles Avenue last Sunday would have disagreed. Nor will the thousands more who will gather tomorrow and over the next five days to watch more parades and join masked balls until the holiday reaches its climax on Fat Tuesday itself, next week. New Orleans needs a reason for fun and laughter. And, perhaps even more desperately, it needs the dollars that Mardi Gras generates.

"I knew we would have it," shouts Renée Tyler, 38, as the first of several school bands passes by, trumpets and trombones in full throat. Like most people here, she left New Orleans for nearly two months but managed finally to make it home. "There is too much tradition in Mardi Gras to let a little hurricane stop it. I knew it wasn't going to be the way it used to be. But it's still Mardi Gras and I love it."

To be sure, this is a scaled-down version of what New Orleans normally sees in February. There will be eight days of parades instead of the usual 12, they will have fewer floats and the Mardi Gras balls will be smaller, if they happen at all. The city doesn't have the police to deal with more. And the "krewes" - the private clubs that lay it all on - have lost members and funds.

It will be tamer too, or that, at least, is what the city is fervently hoping. A local association of business has published a top 10 list of golden rules for enjoying Mardi Gras, printed on pamphlets and posters everywhere. It is aimed at tourists more than locals. Rule No 5: "Respect the fact that public nudity is against the law." In other words, no more flashing of flesh for beads in the French Quarter.

New Orleans once celebrated its sense of apartness from the rest of America. But no longer. There is a worry, approaching paranoia, that if Washington DC has seemed slow in pledging dollars to rebuild the flattened homes and broken levees, it is because it doesn't approve of the city and its louche ways and doesn't trust it to spend the money properly.

"Are they suspicious of us? Of course, they are. They should be, because we are suspect," said Damon Hartley Davis, a consultant at the high-end Bryant Art Gallery on Royal Street. He is glad Mardi Gras is happening - the gallery has lost virtually all foot-traffic and overall business is down about 40 per cent. At the very least, those tourists who do come will see that the French Quarter is alive again and spread the word back home Yet he is sanguine about what lies ahead once the party's over.

"I am thinking it will take us three to four years to get back. It took Manhattan that long and it was easier there because it was responsible for the economy of the nation. The only responsibility we have is that we are open all night and we can get you drunk. For the first 30 days after Katrina we thought God and the President would shower us with billions and we'd be back in six months' time. That hasn't happened."

Indeed, Mardi Gras this year may turn out to be more little more than a spasm of hilarity in a patient that is otherwise suffering an extended nervous breakdown. There are a few signs of progress. The huge Harrah's Casino at the bottom of Canal Street finally reopened a week ago. George Bush has just asked Congress to add $4.2bn to the $6.2bn already pledged for reconstruction. This week, the Army Corps of Engineers said that by 1 June, when the next hurricane season starts, the levee system will have been repaired at least to where it was before Katrina and perhaps a bit better than that.

Every week, meanwhile, sees more people trickling back into town from the places they fled to, mostly Texas. Very gradually, the city and the state are defining what kind of aid owners of damaged or destroyed homes can expect. Far from resolved, however, is the fraught issue of which parts of town can be rebuilt and which homes, blocks and neighbourhoods will no longer be considered viable.

It is not shiny beads that litter the streets of the lower Ninth Ward, for instance, but tokens of lives wrecked by the floods when the nearby Industrial Canal spilt over. You have to see the destruction yourself - crushed houses that floated from their foundations and still straddle the deserted streets, the boats and cars tossed about like toys - to know that whole swaths of New Orleans are beyond rebuilding.

"The people here have to grow up and realise that this city is never going to be the same," says Mr Hartley Davis. "And it can't be the same. We can't have the same crime, the same corruption in government, the same poor education standards or any of those things either."

New Orleans will mend, but it will be a tinier place and - because it was the poor black population that was disproportionately forced to leave - a whiter one too. It may emerge as a boutique city, part river port and part living museum, even though many of those who nurtured its culture - its jazz, food and even voodoo legends - will be gone. But one thing is for sure: Mardi Gras will never die.