New Orleans Picks Itself Up to Celebrate Carnival It's Fat Tuesday, the last day of celebration before Lent. How is the celebration going in a city still recovering from Katrina?
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New Orleans Picks Itself Up to Celebrate Carnival

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New Orleans Picks Itself Up to Celebrate Carnival

New Orleans Picks Itself Up to Celebrate Carnival

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It's almost six months to the day after Hurricane Katrina hit the Big Easy, and New Orleans is celebrating Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras. It's the culmination of the city's annual raucous celebration which precede the Lenten season. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. Celebrations this year are particularly symbolic for a city struggling to get back on its feet after the devastation of two hurricanes. NPR's Audie Cornish has been at the parade today. She joins us now by phone from New Orleans. Nice to have you on the program, Audie.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Hi, good afternoon Neal.

CONAN: Could you describe the mood for us there in New Orleans? Are revelers there forgetting about their woes and just having a good time?

CORNISH: Well, this is really the climax of the Mardi Gras celebrations, and so throughout the last two weeks there's been many parades, throughout the city, but at this point, you've got the most people. Anyone who's been traveling from a long way who wanted to come to Mardi Gras has done so and is here today. And so, the words you're hearing today are therapy, people think that this is a moment of release. Which is what it always was, but it means that much more at the end of this really harrowing six months.

CONAN: And one of the things that Mardi Gras is about is about satire, poking fun at a lot of otherwise serious things. I know that there've been a lot of floats there, for example, Katrina and Rita, Girls Gone Wild.

CORNISH: Exactly. I think blue tarps have become sort of, they've been ubiquitous on the roofs, and now they were ubiquitous during the Mardi Gras season. The ones that aren't being retrofitted into costumes are being used as blankets today that people are sitting on. A lot of people are wearing signs that say things like, Throw me something FEMA, a play on the words of, you know, getting some beads. The satire has really been a part of the early parades, that happened this past weekend. And I've noticed that today there's been much more traditional floats going out there and really just people trying to have a moment that is just like any other Mardi Gras that they had before, and not really dragging in so much of the pain of the last few months.

CONAN: NPR's Audie Cornish is at Mardi Gras, in New Orleans. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, at NPR News. And, describe this for us. A lot of people don't really understand how these different parades have come to acquire such tradition.

CORNISH: Well, the way Mardi Gras works, you have to understand, it's not as though it's an event that's put on by the city, it's sort of city supported in the way of police and emergency workers. But its actually social crews or clubs that put in the money for costumes, for floats, for beads, and they're the ones who get together and really have the parade. And so this year really could not have happened without people in the city, the people who are here, deciding that they did want to have a Mardi Gras event. And so what you're seeing are sort of the culmination of whatever people could throw together to have in time for this particular season. And that goes from the Zulu Indians who put together their costumes and made do with what they had from some of their destroyed homes. And if you looked closely, there were some floats that had a watermark at the base of them. So, people really got things together very quickly for this event that they really wanted to have.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And I wonder, what's going on in front of you now?

CORNISH: Right now I am at the corner of, I'm actually along the stretch of Saint Charles Ave., which is significant because of the shortened parade schedule this year. Right now there is a truck parade going by, which means that there are a lot of semi trucks, each one of them is decorated in different designs. The theme here just seems to be New Orleans in general, haunted New Orleans, New Orleans underwater, that Games of New Orleans.

And this year, all the parades were forced to be on one shortened route, and that had the effect of sort of cramming everyone together and making things feel as joyous as they may have been in the past, when the fact is, if you walk a mile north, you walk a mile east, you can be walking straight into the devastation. It's almost as though you're walking a few miles back in time, a few months back in time, and suddenly you're seeing a few more piles of debris and a few more homes that need a lot of work. And so, right now, with everyone facing in on Saint Charles Ave., it feel like any other Mardi Gras.

CONAN: Like any other Mardi Gras? That seems extraordinary given the events of the past six months.

CORNISH: Exactly. But the idea is that we're in a section of town that's pretty polished, didn't sustain the same damage as other areas which were nearly decimated or areas people know about now, like the Ninth Ward, which look almost the same as they did six months ago. But right now the focus is not there, the attention is inward, and it's toward downtown, where the stoplights are working and the lights are working and the people in these neighborhoods still have power. And I think, just for this moment, that is what people are looking for.

CONAN: Every town that thrives on tourism, New Orleans is certainly one, Washington, New York, many others, have sort of an ambivalent towards the tourists who come and see these events. In a way, yes, it's for the tourists and for the tourist dollars, but it's also a private ceremony.

CORNISH: Well, Mardi Gras has always been divided between the tourists' Mardi Gras and the locals' Mardi Gras. And one aspect of having a year where there aren't as many tourists coming in is that the family part, the local part of Mardi Gras, is inadvertantly getting a chance to shine. You're speaking to a lot of people out on the sidelines who live in the area, who have traveled in from Houston or other areas of southwest Texas, came just for this trip, rather than sort of people from all over, tons of college students drinking all over. I think that kind of Mardi Gras experience has been a little bit more confined to the Quarter and is much tighter and smaller than it has been in years past. So that's very different.

CONAN: After today, I guess its back to the business of cleanup and recovery, and disputes over all of those things. Plus there's a mayoral election coming up.

CORNISH: Yeah, after Mardi Gras the city is going to basically roll up its sleeves. The mayor's race is April 22nd, and there's already been candidates out here shaking hands, sort of a reflection of Mardi Gras and the city in general, with the upturn demographics, the city going from majority black to, in effect, majority white. There has been several more white mayoral candidates, and this is in a city that hasn't had a white mayor in something like 30 years. So, you're going to see very different politics coming out of this, of these last few months, and you're also going to see the federal money come into play here in New Orleans. What will city and state officials be doing to make sure the money the federal government is appropriating to them gets into the hands of those people who need to renovate and fix their homes?

CONAN: Well, meantime, there's still a day of celebration left, and Audie, I have to ask you, are you collecting any beads?

CORNISH: I, you know, if there are beads that happen to fall onto my microphone, it is only right for me to take them home with me. And hopefully I can bring some to you in Washington, but this is really sort of the winding down of Mardi Gras. There aren't any evening parades, and I suspect the city is going to go through a few moments of really down time after this event. All the bills are going to be due, the grace periods will be over on your mortgage, and I think the city is in for just a moment of, a little bit of grief again, after this Mardi Gras season.

CONAN: Well, before the hangover, I hope you have a good time, Audie.

CORNISH: Thank you.

CONAN: NPR's Audie Cornish joining us by satellite telephone from the city of New Orleans and Mardi Gras. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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