New Orleans’ First Post-Katrina Mardi Gras Is Bittersweet

Though smaller and more subdued, party lifted spirits and put spotlight back on Gulf Coast.

NEW ORLEANS — Fat Tuesday rolled on in the Big Easy this week, marking the end of the first Mardi Gras bash the region has seen since Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast last year.

It was a bittersweet celebration for the eclectic sea of costumed revelers, out-of-towners and proud locals who made the trek to uptown New Orleans and the French Quarter to watch a host of multicolored floats, marching bands and cheerleaders power through a myriad of parades for the culmination of Carnival. Jazz music flowed freely out of newly opened bars and restaurants as people danced, if at least for one day, in the streets.

Just a week before, the city was still debating whether or not to cancel its 150th Mardi Gras celebration. Some opponents of the festivities rationalized that it would not be right to throw such a huge party in a city that is still so heavily devastated and where so many are still homeless (see “New Orleans Evacuates As Mayor Issues ‘Desperate SOS’ “ ). Others argued that was, in fact, the reason to throw it: to not only uplift the spirit of the Crescent City with its time-honored tradition, but to also draw in an influx of tourists, eager and willing to drop their dough to boost a struggling economy.

Though the festivities were considerably downsized this year (lack of funds and police enforcement forced officials to cut the number of parades and shorten routes), Mardi Gras persevered, albeit with smaller, more subdued crowds.

“There was a lot of speculation beforehand that Mardi Gras wasn’t going to happen, but it came back as great as ever,” said Anna Wilson, a student at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, who attended the event with some friends.

Grace Settoon, one of Wilson’s pals, agreed. “I think Mardi Gras is so much more important this year because it’s a great way for all of us to come together and show the world that we’re [still] strong,” she explained.

Mardi Gras also served as a much-needed break for locals who’ve spent countless hours repairing the ravaged city, where many neighborhoods still lie in ruins.

“People are just so tired from rebuilding that we needed Mardi Gras,” said Loyola University student Marie Guevara, who returned to the city in January after being displaced to Southern Methodist University (see “New Orleans Universities Reopen And Encourage Students To Help Out” ). “Locals need it to relax and let some of their stress go.”

College students also needed the several days of Carnival to let go of their worries, especially with the majority of them pulling double semesters in order to catch up on what they missed when they were forced to leave New Orleans (see ” ‘College Transition’ Taking On New Meaning For Displaced Students” ).

“Everyone [at Loyola] was really excited, because the semester has been so stressful since we need to make up for all this lost time,” added Guevara, an 18-year-old communications major. “So when this break hit, everyone was ready to relax and have fun. Sure, some went a little crazy, but that’s what Mardi Gras is for.”

And, if anything, the festivities of Mardi Gras also shift the spotlight back on a region still in dire need of the nation’s help.

“I know there are a lot of people here who feel like the nation forgot about us,” Guevara explained. “It’s like, since there is no more flooding in the city and the storm is gone, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, they’re OK. They’re rebuilding.’ But things are still really tough here. People think we don’t need help anymore, but we do.”

Though rebuilding efforts could last as long as 10 years, as some locals are saying, many residents have no doubt their city will return to its former glory.

“When I tell people I’m from New Orleans, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ but really it’s like, ‘No, it’s great,’ ” said Maddy Greenbough, a student at the Isidore Newman School in Orleans Parish. “It’s true we have suffered through a lot, [but] we can rebuild. … And New Orleans will rise again.”

To find out what you can do to help provide relief to victims of Katrina, head to think MTV’s hurricane relief page.