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Some Hurricane Katrina evacuees plan to demonstrate in Atlanta tonight to protest plans for New Orleans officials to go ahead with the city's annual Mardi Gras celebration. The protesters say the city should focus on other priorities, such as helping them return and rebuild their ruined homes. NPR's Anthony Brooks reports on how the debate in playing in New Orleans.
ANTHONY BROOKS reporting:
Three months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is two cities. Much of it is still empty, dark and ruined, but the parts that were spared the worst of Katrina's wrath are coming back to life.
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Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, baby, I want you tonight.
BROOKS: Here in the historic French Quarter, many of the shops, restaurants and bars are open, even if they're hurting badly for customers. City officials say this part of New Orleans and many of its restaurants and hotels will be ready for the celebration that represents the cultural heart and soul of this city, Mardi Gras.
Ms. JACKIE CLARKSON (New Orleans City Council): Mardi Gras' important because it's not about fun, it's about business.
BROOKS: Big business, because tourism is New Orleans' biggest moneymaker. So City Council member Jackie Clarkson, whose district includes the French Quarter, says Mardi Gras will bring in much-needed revenues to help this crippled city rebuild.
Ms. CLARKSON: Mardi Gras signals to the world that our city's open for business and that we're ready for tourism, and that is our major industry and we need that. We depend on that.
BROOKS: The celebration will be smaller than usual, but some people here say even a scaled-down Mardi Gras is inappropriate now, among them Jacques Morial, a New Orleans political organizer.
Mr. JACQUES MORIAL (Political Organizer): It's insensitive and cruelly indifferent to stage a celebration on this scale when we have so many people who are suffering and convinced that government's left them behind and doesn't care about them.
BROOKS: Morial says a Mardi Gras celebration could send the wrong message, that New Orleans is recovered when much of it still resembles a war zone, such as here in the mostly deserted and destroyed Lower Ninth Ward.
Mr. ERIC GREEN: It's total devastation here. I mean, you know, ain't no way to describe it but total devastation.
BROOKS: That's Eric Green, who came to see what's left of his son's home, which is still standing unlike many others here. He's not opposed to celebrating Mardi Gras, but Green says the city should focus on other needs right now.
Mr. GREEN: Getting the people that live here housing, trailers and stuff so they can go back to their homes. Give 'em some hope. They have no hope. You know, Mardi Gras is like a tourist thing.
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BROOKS: Here at Kern Studios in New Orleans, workers are already spray-painting the huge, colorful Mardi Gras parade floats. Barry Kern, the third generation of Kerns to run this business, says Mardi Gras is more than a tourist attraction; it's the engine that can drive the city's recovery.
Mr. BARRY KERN (Kern Studios): If Mardi Gras is canceled this year, not only am I out of business, all the people that work for me. Think of the busboys in the restaurants that want to serve the people. Unless we get New Orleans going again, nobody's going to come invest in New Orleans and build new homes if there's no economy here to support it.
BROOKS: But plans to celebrate Mardi Gras this year are deeply offensive to people like Clyde Robertson. Robertson is a New Orleans School Board official now living in Atlanta after Katrina destroyed his home.
Mr. CLYDE ROBERTSON (New Orleans School Board Member): My family has experienced both loss of life and property. My great-aunt and uncle were killed in the Lower Ninth Ward by the storm and its aftermath. And so it, to me, is inhuman to host a celebration during these saddest days.
BROOKS: Robertson is calling for a boycott of Mardi Gras, and says the best way to revitalize the city's economy is to bring back workers and professionals like him.
Mr. ROBERTSON: Bring us back by turning on the utilities in our communities. There's no talk about bringing us back. Use the resources and time that we are giving to this empty celebration to bring us back to the city and let us help you rebuild.
Ms. CLARKSON: For those listening who think we don't care about them that's displaced...
BROOKS: New Orleans City Council member Jackie Clarkson.
Ms. CLARKSON: ...I had seven of my 10 grandchildren here and several of my daughters--of the five daughters. I have no one here now. I'm hurting. So we can't bring anybody home if we don't make money and provide services, and Mardi Gras puts us there.
BROOKS: This is really a debate about everything that Mardi Gras represents in New Orleans; its beauty, history and sense of fun, as well as its divisions along lines of race, class and neighborhoods. These days, it's also a debate about how to bring two cities together, the one that's coming back to life and the one that's not.
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BROOKS: Although much of this city remains dark and empty, parts of it have come back. And there is still a desire and capacity to celebrate, even in Katrina's wake. But questions about the city's defining celebration will remain a source of debate in the months ahead. Anthony Brooks, NPR News, New Orleans.
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