Mardi Gras Helps Biloxi Bounce Back

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Biloxi, Miss., has scaled back its Mardi Gras parades, but the event is still rallying a community hit hard by Katrina. Bill Raymond, manager of the town's Mardi Gras museum, tells Don Gonyea what's on tap.

DON GONYEA, host:

Mardi Gras is also being celebrated all along the Gulf Coast, from Louisiana into Mississippi and Alabama. Some of the biggest parades on the Mississippi Gulf Coast take place in Biloxi.

But this year, instead of three parades on Fat Tuesday, there's just one. Bill Raymond is historical administrator for the City of Biloxi and manager of its Mardi Gras Museum. He joins us on the line.

Bill, welcome to the show.

Mr. BILL RAYMOND (Manager, Mardi Gras Museum, Biloxi, Mississippi): Thank you for having me.

GONYEA: So how many people usually visit Biloxi for Mardi Gras? And really, how do things look for you this year?

Mr. RAYMOND: We look for tens of thousands of people. I mean the streets will be totally packed on a typical Mardi Gras. Now this year it's going to be a little different.

Instead of having the thousands and thousands of hotel rooms that we normally have, we're down to, right now we have three casino hotels and three regular hotels that are open, compared to what we would've had before the storm, which would've been, you know, probably 30 or 40 hotels.

GONYEA: Did any of the floats survive the storm?

Mr. RAYMOND: Every one of the floats had to be re-done. Our float barn where we store the floats did take water in the storm. It probably about eight foot of water in it. So they had to all be rebuilt. We had to had volunteers come in and strip out the floats and then we had a local sign maker who's also actually a float designer to get the floats back together and get them rolling on Tuesday.

GONYEA: People are busy rebuilding their homes and doing things like that. They've had time and energy to work on the floats?

Mr. RAYMOND: You know, people have to understand, people are putting their lives back together. They're working 40 hours and more a week at work, and then coming home and working every night in their house, putting up sheetrock, doing whatever it takes to get their house back together. And I think Mardi Gras is that chance to get away from that.

You know, and Mardi Gras, it's a chance for us to unwind, to get away from the drudgery of cleaning house and cleaning up debris, and to do something normal. It's a tradition for us.

But it's also, celebrating Mardi Gras is an economic engine for the Gulf Coast. It brings a lot of visitors in, you'll see the restaurants will be packed, the hotels are packed. And you know, it's something that we need, especially right now. We've lost a lot of our sales tax base, so we need these visitors.

GONYEA: People do really seem to be in the mood for Mardi Gras this year, in that it's something important to them even with all the other things that they clearly have to do.

Mr. RAYMOND: Yeah, we're in our 98th year of celebrating Mardi Gras in Biloxi. I don't think the celebration's ever been totally canceled. But we haven't had parades during the world wars. The only times that we haven't had a parade, even after Hurricane Camille, which hit 30-odd years ago, but we still had Mardi Gras the next year.

It's in our breeding, it's, you know, something that we just, you know, as natural to us here as celebrating Christmas. It's just something that's just going to happen.

GONYEA: Bill Raymond is historical administrator for the City of Biloxi and manager of the Mardi Gras Museum there.

Thanks very much Bill, and happy Mardi Gras.

Mr. RAYMOND: Thank you.

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