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ISSUE 119 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/10/2006

Floating Mardi Gras' boat

By David Henke
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 10, 2006

A strange dichotomy exists in the photos from this year’s Mardi Gras Festival in New Orleans. In one, a partygoer dressed as a sandbag walks next to a number of scantily-clad dancers. The simplicity of the partygoer’s costume stands out when juxtaposed with the dancers’ feather boas, sequins and exotic make-up.

In the foreground of another picture, a garish float, constructed by one of the many Mardi Gras clubs, or “krewes,” is ready and waiting for another day of parades and celebrations. In the background, bleakly uniformed government-issue trailer homes are parked on a railroad car, waiting to be distributed to a few of the many homeless that Hurricane Katrina left in its wake.

It is evident from the photos that New Orleans exists in two worlds simultaneously. The first, Mardi Gras New Orleans, is a bright and shallow façade, a celebratory veneer under which many of the problems facing the city hide.

The second world, post-Katrina New Orleans, is a city that suffered through an incredible storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) mismanagement, and the death of more than 1,300 of its residents. Not even half of its 465,000 residents have returned to this city, and whole neighborhoods still do not have gas or electric service.

In a city where so much work still needs to be done, was it wise to spend so much time and energy on a festival like Mardi Gras, which wrapped up Feb. 28?

Carl Henry, a 42-year old member of the Mardi Gras Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club and a resident of the city, echoed those sentiments in an interview with The New York Times. He did not participate in this year’s celebration. "I don't feel comfortable," he said. "The money I would spend on [Mardi Gras] trinkets I would put to better use for me and my family. That's just my situation."

Yet the vast majority of the city did celebrate. Even though many homes in the city still have X’s spray-painted on them to signify that no dead bodies were found in them, an estimated 400,000 people converged on New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

I cannot fault the decision to go through with Mardi Gras; in fact, I would have made the same choice if the proverbial decision-making ball had been in my court.

The festival was a much-needed diversion for the citizens of New Orleans and an economic boon to a city government that is more than $200 million in the red.

Besides, many of New Orleans’ displaced residents returned home for the first time since the hurricane. Some of them, drawn in by the allure of Mardi Gras, plan on remaining in the city, salvaging what they can from their abandoned homes, and making a new life for themselves in the Big Easy.

Though Mardi Gras drew only a little more than half the number of tourists than in past years, it was a vibrant high point for a city brought to its knees by Katrina and Rita.

"It is slower, but better in quality," said Inez Quintanilla, a bartender at Lafitte's Blacksmith Bar in the French Quarter, said in an interview with the Associated Press. "Anyone who is here is here because they want to be."

The future of New Orleans is still unclear, but for the many New Orleanians whose lives were upset by Hurricane Katrina, Mardi Gras was a poignant but short-lived return to normality, as well as a testament to the soul of a city.

Staff writer David Henke is a sophomore from Detroit Lakes, Minn. He majors in English.

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