Mardi Gras Countdown Marked by Loss

In the final countdown to the city's first Mardi Gras celebration after Hurricane Katrina, there are parades and parties — but also sobering reminders of loss.

The first appeared Thursday night, when the biggest of three parades to roll, the all-woman Krewe of Muses parade, culminated with an empty float to symbolize the area's victims — more than 1,000 deaths and close to 2,000 still missing in the aftermath of the Aug. 29 storm.

The float, named Mnemosyne after the Greek goddess of memory and mother of the muses, was draped in black, with a swirl of gray and white bedecked with blue flowers. Above it was a banner reading, "We celebrate life, we mourn the past, we shall never forget."

Parades and parties were planned throughout the weekend, culminating on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, a final day of celebration before Ash Wednesday and the solemn Lenten season.

"There are not as many people here as in the past, but I think there are a lot more on the way," said Mark Page, a New Orleans resident of 16 years who was bedecked in a large, colorful hat and wore glasses with flashing lights. "I think the city will really be jammed."

Though a few tourists were getting an early start on revelry in the French Quarter on Thursday, some residents in the hurricane-ravaged city were still split on whether a celebration was appropriate. In the hard-hit lower Ninth Ward, where Katrina floodwaters lifted some homes off foundations and left them in heaps in the middle of streets, Percy Branon was in no mood to party.

"I think we've got far more important things to do than fooling with Mardi Gras," he said as a friend used a push broom to shove debris off Branon's roof. "I don't think that should be permanent, but this year, I think we should have overlooked it — try to get to some of this work that needs to be done."

French Quarter resident Buckner Harris said he saw no reason to skip the celebration.

"It gives most people something to do and take their minds off the tragedy," he said.