Sunday, February 19 —"I wasn't in the mood for a parade," Carolyn said in a soft-spoken hush. But there she was on Canal Street on this raw, wintry-like day…a day of palpable, raw emotions for so many participating and taking in the first Mardi Gras parade since Hurricane Katrina. "Everyone is partying, but we're still struggling," she told me as she stuffed a string of beads into her pocket. She made it clear she wasn't there for herself. It was all about the kids.
Chelsea is 8. Randy is 10. With their mother, they live in a hotel in downtown New Orleans. They have to leave on March 5th. Their story is just as sad, and just as dispiriting and disheartening as that of hundreds of thousands of people whose lives were changed by Katrina. But individually, their struggle represents the greater challenge of this region. And so that's why they matter.
You hear so much about the destruction in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, but few communities in this city were spared. Gentilly. Lakeview. Mid-City. Different classes. Different races. Varying levels of wealth. All forever altered by a hurricane that didn't discriminate. Like the winding Mississippi which cuts through this city, an unmistakable brown line still snakes through all of these neighborhoods, indelibly reminding the masses, that Katrina's high water mark won't soon be forgotten. Carolyn cannot forget. She used to call Uptown her home.
Other than the clothes she was wearing, Carolyn salvaged one thing from Katrina. The six feet of water couldn't reach that picture book in her closet. "I still cry," Carolyn told me as she stuffed another string of beads into her pocket. "It's not the same anymore."
In a typical year, Mardi Gras is worth the equivalent of bringing four Super Bowls to town with an economic stimulus of 1.056 billion dollars. Clearly, money is something this region desperately needs. Yet, many here have made it abundantly clear they feel Mardi Gras conveys an inappropriate message. "What's there to celebrate?" they ask. "The death toll of more than a thousand in the region?" "110,000 homes destroyed in New Orleans?" " The reality that two-thirds of the city's former residents remain displaced?" For her own reasons, genuinely valid to her, Carolyn was among the Mardi Gras cynics. Was .
"They're happy. They're smiling," Carolyn told me with a slight grin on her face, as her kids chased down beads chucked to the streets. The Shangri-la Krewe passed by with its floats. ("Krewes" are the private clubs that put on the Mardi Gras parades and parties). Unbeknownst to Carolyn, she had something in common with ninety percent of the Shangri-La Krewe members. They, too, had lost their homes. I'm told one krewe member slipped from her husband's grip during the flooding, never to be seen again. They were in the water, trying to get to a boat that they though would give them shelter, when a wave swept her away. Her body was found five days later.
Although the Mardi Gras parades wind through New Orleans, many of the members of Shangri-La are from hard hit St. Bernard Parish, where not even a handful of homes emerged from Katrina unscathed. "We really needed this. We needed to keep in touch, particularly in our darkest hour," stressed Shangri-La Krewe member Anne Farmer, hours before parade time, as beads and costumes were loaded on to floats. "This is so fun. I've been waiting and waiting for it. I couldn't even sleep last night."
Because of Katrina, many of the Krewes lost costumes, beads, even some floats, costing tens of thousands of dollars to replace. That wouldn't stop Anne and her friends from tossing beads, trinkets, and other give-aways to Chelsea, Randy, and many more. Yours truly grabbed a few too.
I called Anne this morning to get her thoughts on her ride through New Orleans with her friends from Shangri-La. Almost immediately, she broke into tears. "I've cried every day. I'm not crying out of personal loss. I'm crying for the people, who I can't do enough to help."
Perhaps Anne's tears were for people like Carolyn, who in an immeasureable way, Anne helped on this first day of the 150th Mardi Gras. Chelsea and Randy left the parade with a treasure trove of beads — and wide smiles. "If they're happy. I'm happy," remarked Carolyn. "I feel like this city is coming back. Everyone is coming together."
Over the next two weeks, I hope to be able to share with you my thoughts about the “New” New Orleans. If you have questions, please feel free to e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org.