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A Melancholy Mardi Gras

Sparse New Orleans crowds greet the first parades of Carnival, symbols of resilience but as weakened by disaster as the city itself.

February 19, 2006|Scott Gold, P.J. Huffstutter and Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writers

NEW ORLEANS — If this was the day that New Orleans was to step out into the light, it did so haltingly, gingerly, its eyes squinted. On a dreary and chilly day, under splintered Southern oaks lining St. Charles Avenue, Mardi Gras began on Saturday, nearly six months after Hurricane Katrina brought the city to its knees.

There were floats with a giant crawfish and a big roulette wheel, but crowds were so sparse that paraders were left with unopened boxes of "throws," mostly colorful beads that have long been cherished mementos of the festival.

The decision to stage the street party despite the enormous hardship still shouldered by hundreds of thousands of people had been controversial from the start, but for many, the identity of this city is so intertwined with Carnival that to do anything less would have meant, once and for all, defeat.

Yet any lingering concern that Mardi Gras could send a false and dangerous message to the nation -- that New Orleans has recovered -- was dispelled quickly.

By the end of the day, the consensus was that this Mardi Gras will not mean economic or spiritual salvation. Instead, it will be a reminder of the way things used to be and the way they might be again, a benign distraction from the storm, which informs every breath and step of those who have managed to come home.

Crowds, though they will surely pick up when Carnival begins its final push next weekend -- especially if the weather improves -- were shockingly small Saturday.

It is a tradition that parents bring stepladders equipped with small seats for children, who otherwise can't see through the throng of adults lining the parade routes. That was not a concern this year, and many people, with a block virtually to themselves, laid the ladders on the ground.

There was a run of parades -- five in all, organized by "krewes," secretive organizations with names like Shangri-La and the Knights of Sparta. The five have marched through the city's streets a combined 175 times.

In years past, the parades would have been good for 10 hours or more of merriment -- long enough, as they say and do around here, to get drunk, sleep it off and then do it again before it's over.

Saturday, with fewer floats, fewer bands and fewer onlookers, it was over in an hour and a half.

At St. Charles and Louisiana avenues, near the launching area for the parades, three enterprising teenagers were charging $20 to park next to a shuttered McDonald's. Normally they would have made a killing.

"Lookee here!" shouted 14-year-old John Bethancourt, his voice not yet changed, his cheeks red in the wind and in no need of a shave. "Come on! It's a parade!"

"People pull up and tell me I'm crazy," he confided later. He nodded toward the free parking on the streets just a block away -- openings unimaginable in years past.

Wendy and Jimmy Herty, both born and raised in New Orleans, recenlty returned after 13 years living in other states and bought a house east of town, just in time for it to be severely damaged in the storm. They decided to make the trip into the city Saturday to support Mardi Gras -- even though, like many here, they remain unsure about the wisdom behind the decision to stage the event.

They didn't get out of the house until 9 a.m., three hours before the first parade was to roll, and had to stop to get breakfast for their two children on the way into town. Wendy Herty was certain they were going to be late. Instead, they parked two blocks away and found themselves standing alone on St. Charles Avenue well before the first floats passed by.

"This is unreal," her husband said. "I don't see anybody. This is a prime spot. Normally, people would be six, eight, 10 people deep by now. For a lot of people here, tourism is income, and we can use every bit we can get right now.

Most were determined to make the best of it.

Jimmy Herty looked around at the empty streets and, while saddened, noted the absence of riff-raff, con artists and stumbling coeds who had become a hallmark of Carnival in recent years. "There is an element that used to be here that isn't here right now," he said. "And they are welcome to stay away."

Don Nall, a resident of Baton Rouge, La., said he had avoided Mardi Gras for a decade because of the crowds. This time, he brought his 10-year-old daughter, Rebecka, knowing attendance would be sparse.

"I'm surprised they're even having it," he said. "When you think about what it was like five months ago, it's kind of impressive they're even pulling it off."

The New Orleans area has lost an estimated $3.5 billion in tourism revenue since the storm, and many businesses had been looking forward to Mardi Gras for months. Recent years brought crowds of a million people or more to New Orleans and an economic boost estimated at $1 billion.

Usually the opening weekend is a major draw, with the partying lasting almost two weeks, until Fat Tuesday -- Feb. 28 this year -- the day before Lent.

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