Mardi Gras celebration after tragedy

by Meredith Veto

This morning I strolled through a noisy, vibrant street scene: a woman with a pink wig and feathered headdress smiled at me; a brash, bald man exhibited his tiger-striped body paint and three bead-strung jesters loitering in front of a house dressed in rainbow ribbons.’

This is New Orleans at the peak of its week of flamboyant, unrestrained debauchery, the excessive festivities that climax the night of Fat Tuesday. It’s the first celebration since a horrific national crisis occurred that irreversibly scarred the face of a great American city.

But it wasn’t Hurricane Katrina.

It’s 2002, almost six months after the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11. The country is still shaken, still afraid to laugh.

Kelly Dempster was in New Orleans shooting photographs of the jubilant, sequined party-goers. He’s a ’73 Guilford College graduate who’s frequented the Mardi Gras celebrations for 20 years.

Now Dempster’s photos brighten the walls of Guilford’s Commons room in Founders Hall, where soft, green-tinted sunlight streams through the windowpanes. The room is close to silent but I can almost hear the zydeco, the glass breaking in gutters, the raucous sorority girls hailing floats: ‘“Throw me something, mister!’”

The photos remind us how in a time when most Americans still feared airplanes and anthrax, arranging travel plans according to a color-coded security meter, the people of New Orleans danced, drank and lifted their shirts in the face of terrorist threats. Disaster couldn’t foil the city’s spirit.

So today, looking at the pictures of fairies, kings and tigers dancing on streets six months ago inundated with the murky filth Katrina left in her wake, I wonder if the Big Easy can keep its chin up after its own national crisis. I wonder if the Big Easy can still laugh.

Physically the city remains, bruised and battered, but it’s difficult to see its spirit.

Half of New Orleans has disappeared. Of the residents who remain, whites outnumber blacks for the first time in decades, signaling a huge cultural shift. The courts, police headquarters and prison are in shambles and only seven of 42 public attorneys returned to defend accused lawbreakers. Half the traffic lights are still out of order. Of 117 schools, 19 are up and running. Three of seven hospitals are operating, though only one third of the city’s doctors returned.

The list goes on. Government officials played the blame game last week, pinballing names like Chertoff and Nagin around committee while few moves toward reparation advanced.

The New York Times reported that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco expressed her gratitude to President Bush for the $4.2 billion he requested from Congress for state relief efforts, money offered reluctantly because of concerns ‘“about whether Louisiana had a clear plan for reconstruction and whether it could be held accountable for the huge influx of federal aid it was about to receive.’”

Because, of course, the president has a crystal clear reconstruction plan for Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, he’s so confident about his plan that Thursday he requested an additional $72.4 billion from Congress for reconstruction in the Middle East, bringing this fiscal year’s total to $400 billion spent on military operations overseas.

But in spite of everything ‘— and without getting into FEMA ‘— New Orleans will survive, and an intrepid Mardi Gras, parades, king cakes and all, is in the works.

This year parade krewes designed floats sneering at the storm that broke their city: themes include ‘“Gimme that Mold Time Religion’”; ‘“A Day at the Breach’” and ‘“FEMA, God of the Sea, the One in Our Living Rooms.’”

Even with a good chunk of the city missing, festivities are planned in full force for this sinful last week of February. The Jazz Fest returns in April, bringing in some of the biggest names the city has ever seen and welcoming home several New Orleans natives.

And residents are coming home too, in larger numbers and faster than anybody expected.

New and reconstructed houses are springing up like dandelions. Homeowners eager to rebuild are undermining the city’s commission and insurance officials that want to hold off building permits in damaged areas until there’s more careful planning: folks are coming in droves to City Hall to appeal damage reports, which city workers usually approve so that reconstruction can start.

I’m hopeful that the lady in the pink headdress and the painted tiger man from Dempster’s photographs will return to Mardi Gras this year, and party fearlessly in the face of disaster. They’ll walk down the same streets, this time noticing floats scarred with five-foot watermarks and bars with boarded, shattered windows.

But they’ll still plead for strands of plastic beads. They’ll still celebrate, eat king cake, drink and dance. And with hope, they’ll still laugh.

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