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Katrina Inspires Mardi Gras' Satirical Tradition

This city's battered residents put their months of heartache, frustration and anger on parade Saturday, in effigies, blue-tarp trailers and themes like "Fridge Over Troubled Water," and gave themselves the first of many desperately needed Mardi Gras laughs.

The Krewe du Vieux, a satirical group that has used its parade to mock corporations and politicians every year for the last two decades, featured carts with effigies of Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco, among other things.

"It's good we can laugh at ourselves," said spectator Robert Elmwood, 77. "It means the spirit is still alive. After all the grim things, we've prevailed."

Mardi Gras has long been an occasion for the city to laugh at tragedy and aim barbs at authorities, and given all the pain New Orleans has suffered in the past year the irreverence should reach new heights this season.

Armed with sharp tongues and images such as the blue tarps that still protect broken roofs across the city, the clubs that stage Mardi Gras parades are targeting Hurricane Katrina and the politicians they blame for the chaotic response to the catastrophe.

One display in the Krewe du Vieux parade Saturday asked France to buy Louisiana back, suggesting the state might get better treatment than it has from the American government.

Dressed as a pink flamingo and accompanying a cart fashioned to resemble a FEMA trailer, Sally Durkin of Mississippi said the satire is helping to heal the city.

"There's so much despair around it all," she said. "Sometimes you have to just take it on the chin and have some humor about it, or we all go crazy."

Still, in the midst of revelry and satire, even the city known as the Big Easy has a serious side.

The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, a 90-year-old historically black group that holds one of the city's most beloved Mardi Gras parades, lit 10 candles at a service in honor of club members who have died since the storm. They lit an eleventh candle to honor the hundreds of people killed by Katrina.

Mardi Gras parades typically run on weekends leading up to and on Mardi Gras, which falls on Feb. 28 this year, almost exactly six months after the storm. The parades are put on by private clubs across the city; Krewe du Vieux is a smaller French Quarter parade that runs in advance of the major parades.

"It is hard living here now. We need to have our opportunity to release," said Keith Twitchell, one of the organizers of Saturday's Krewe du Vieux parade. "If you don't laugh, you're dead. There's a lot to cry about here."

Mardi Gras expert Arthur Hardy said the satire serves as a coping mechanism.

Masked riders in the parades have long used the opportunity to mock the ruling class and government officials, said . The tradition goes back to 1873, when the Mistick Krewe of Comus themed its parade "The Missing Links to Darwin's Origin of the Species" and portrayed Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant as a tobacco grub.

"It's almost like you laugh to keep from crying. It's a chance to say 'This can't keep us down.' ... We're going to laugh at it and throw something back at it," he said.

Even groups that are typically less tongue-in-cheek are taking swipes at the storm and politicians this year.

The Krewe of Carrollton, which holds its parade on Feb. 19, chose "Blue Roof Blues" — a reference to the tarps protecting damaged and leaky roofs.

The Krewe of Mid-City will use blue tarps along the bottom of its floats — in part out of necessity because of flooding at its warehouse.

The Mid-City parade, scheduled for Feb. 26, will have floats called "New Orleans Culture" — that's culture as in mold — and "I drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was gone," a bitter twist on the line from Don McLean's "American Pie."

It also will use a float from last year's parade that bears the image of Willy Wonka. The "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" character has become a favorite reference to the mayor since he angered residents by saying New Orleans would once more become a "chocolate city." New Orleans was more than 65 percent black before Hurricane Katrina displaced about two-thirds of its population.

"As fate would have it, we're able to recycle it," Gerard Braud, a former Mid-City king, said of the float.