New Orleans was like a stunned boxer hanging on the ropes in late 2005 when the decision was announced that the parades would indeed roll in 2006. With precious little time to prepare, artisans, krewes, and social clubs set into motion their Plan B Mardi Gras preparations. While the recovery was in progress, the city needed the boost of a Post-Katrina Carnival symbolically as much as it needed the infusion of ready cash.
A frequent visitor, I felt an obligation to attend this Mardi Gras, just as one would act in support of a needy friend. It was hard to visualize the event unfolding amid the devastation and limited services. The parade schedules would be carefully down-sized, and the parades themselves truncated, but in the spirit of show biz, the show must go on!
Upon arrival, it was apparent that a monumental effort had succeeded in creating an air of normalcy, but it soon became apparent that the recovery was still in its early stages. Shuttered businesses dotted the landscape of the Central Business District and French Quarter. Many hotels, restaurants, and shops were unable to restore their facilities in time. Those that were open for business sported reduced staffs augmented by inexperienced temporary hires. One-third of the hotel rooms were not available for occupancy.
At night, the shuttered storefronts cast a ghostly presence upon the shadowy streets of the French Quarter.
“I’m not sure, but I think he’s in Texas,” was a frequently heard reply when we inquired about a favorite waiter, bartender, or bell captain. Ominously, others were reported missing, or worse. Service was not up to the high standards that the New Orleans hospitality industry had established the previous years. Menus were shortened, and “We’re out of that one,” was often heard. More often heard, however, were the repeated thanks for our attendance and patronage.
We weren’t put off by the shortages and ineffectual service, because we understood that it had been but a few months ago that Chef Paul Prudhomme was operating a sidewalk soup line reminiscent of the Great Depression. We viewed the city rather as a lovely lady with a tooth missing from her smile. The underlying beauty and spirit of New Orleans remained viable, warts and all.
On the evening of Mardi Gras, the restaurants closed by damage were added to the list of restaurants that traditionally close on that day. In a search for a place to eat, we settled upon a simple meal in a venue not previously given consideration in a dozen visits.
Seizing upon the adversity and despair of Katrina, the various krewes mocked the chaotic vacuum of governance, the destruction, and the simple inconveniences that invaded every life in the city. With tongue in cheek, parodies abounded to criticize the failings, and generally poke fun at the most terrible of circumstances. It was the perfect vent for a head of steam that had been building for six months.
Mondo Kayo Marching Club featured a trio of blind levee inspectors. Outfitted with hard hats and dark glasses, they tapped their white canes on the pavement while running into one another. Though insensitive by standards of political correctness, the failures of the levees, the Levee Board, and the Corps of Engineers were identified in the portrayal.
Almost nude, two couples girded their loins and critical torso areas with multiple wraps of red tape, protesting the draconian procedures that stalled insurance settlements and FEMA disbursements that hamstrung the recovery effort.
President Bush’s, “You’re doin’ a helluva job here, Brownie,” statement became hackneyed over a host of media. But Bush was not singled out, as every head of government was pilloried satirically by the multitudes.
A standout was the Krewe of Mid-City, which themed every float to coincide with the hardship they endured. Potholes, stinking refrigerators, and trailer parks were given comedic life by the floats in a happy sort of self-flagellation.
Though many neighborhoods remain dark at this writing, much of New Orleans has been revitalized. The hospitality industry is riding an unprecedented boom, and this year’s robust Carnival reflects the regained health of the city. Our hotel room in 2006 was booked at a cost of $199 per night. Such a room in the current market is $150 more — if you can find one. Restaurant count is above the pre-Katrina level, and storefront vacancies are in decline.
Once again, life is good!
Carnival 2012, perhaps the biggest ever, commemorates the resilience and determination of the City that Care Forgot.
Writer Ned Cheever lives in Texas, but at least a little piece of his heart belongs to New Orleans. He writes about the city for NolaVie and chronicles other adventures at his blog, nedcheever.com.