Mardi Gras Gives a Smaller Bounce to New Orleans

Mardi Gras wraps up today in New Orleans with the big Fat Tuesday festivities. This year's events haven't drawn crowds as large as they were before Hurricane Katrina, or even last year. The city also had trouble finding a sponsor, and some hotels still have vacancies.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It's Fat Tuesday, and you know what that means in New Orleans.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Rex King of Carnival reigned over Mardi Gras today. His masked riders tossed beads and gold doubloons, some from their floats newly rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Carnival has not returned to its full pre-Katrina state and neither has the city. About 200,000 people live in New Orleans now - that's less than half the previous number. There have been 27 murders since New Year's Day, and many people worry about their safety.

Most of all, residents are angered by the slow distribution of rebuilding aid. The state's Road Home program got $7.5 billion from the federal government, but had given out just $34 million as of earlier this month. At that pace it would take 13 years to get money to people who need it.

SIEGEL: New Orleans' recovery czar, Edward Blakely, will talk about rebuilding troubles in few minutes. First, reporter Eve Troeh describes the mix of economic hope and despair.

EVE TROEH: The bright lobby of the Hilton Riverside Hotel is packed. As guest line up to check in, a manager christens their necks with gold Mardi Gras beads.

Unidentified Man: I hope you enjoy your stay while you're here with us.

TROEH: Missy Carlson(ph) flew here from Nashville for her seventh Mardi Gras. She rides in the Iris parade, and says last year her floatmates were so happy she came back that they cried. This year she's excited about the influx of tourists.

Ms. MISSY CARLSON (Tourist, Nashville): There was quite a few on the flights, and in fact I got an e-mail from a friend of mine that her son and a friend of his were coming over from Alabama, you know. So I think people are coming back.

TROEH: Locals like Mel Mathis(ph) had booked rooms, too. Mathis rides with his Mardi Gras crew even though he no longer calls New Orleans home.

Mr. MEL MATHIS: Well, I'm from Baton Rouge now. We moved after the storm, so we come down for this event. It's a big, big occasion.

TROEH: Thousands of displaced locals are bunking with family or friends for Mardi Gras. But the city measures financial success in hotel vacancy rates, and the hotels were 95 percent full over the weekend. But city officials say it could four or five years before Mardi Gras draws the million-plus visitors it did before Katrina. Mary Beth Romig works for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, and says there continue to be perceptions that New Orleans needs to overcome.

Ms. MARY BETH ROMIG (Spokeswoman, New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau): We still are getting those questions: How is the city? Is it ready? Is there still water in the streets? Lately, we've been getting a lot of doubts about the crime situation. And we give them the most up-to-date figures from the police department, including what they have done to amp up security on the streets for the Mardi Gras season.

TROEH: On the ground, mounted police are saddling up for parade patrol. They're working longer shifts this year and more officers are stationed on rooftops. Some aspects of Mardi Gras do seem back to normal. Some high schools have reopened and marching bands are back.

Like crowd favorites, the McDonna '35 Marching Brown Eagles(ph) in their crimson and gold uniforms. But the band's assistant director, Patrick Williams knows that this parade, called Endymion, used to roll through mid-city, a neighborhood that was flooded.

Mr. PATRICK WILLIAMS (Assistant Director, Marching Band): It's not Endymion if they don't do the mid-city route, you know. Just boosts up the neighborhood, let them know that mid-city is up and running, you know.

TROEH: The club wanted to return, but police said they couldn't afford the extra manpower to secure the parade route. Many here aren't concerned with the politics of parade routes though. They're just excited to be back catching beads, especially those thrown by Saints players and TV stars like Taylor Hicks and James Gandolfini.

Back at the Hilton, shoeshine man George Mitchell(ph) is glad business is picking up, but he wishes the rest of the country would stop putting New Orleans under a microscope.

Mr. GEORGE MITCHELL: We're getting there like a baby. If people quit trying to catch us and let us fall some, we'll pick our self up and learn how to walk on our own.

TROEH: He's hopeful that the end of today's celebration will mark a new beginning for his troubled city.

For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh in New Orleans.

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