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New Orleans Confident That Mardi Gras Will Be Safe

Anne Greenfield, her husband and their children, ages 9 and 11, will come to New Orleans for Mardi Gras after all. So will some of the couple's friends. But for a while, they hesitated because of the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

Their concerns: How well could a police department with 250 fewer officers handle the crowds? Would it be safe for visitors and their kids?

"We wanted to go if we could be assured the city was going to be safe," said the Lubbock, Texas, woman. "We talked to friends living there a lot before we decided."

The city, similarly, had to determine whether it could stage a safe Mardi Gras, and decided the answer was yes. That decision will be put to the test over the next few days, with New Orleans' Mardi Gras celebration in full swing.

"I don't expect any problem," said police spokesman Capt. Juan Quinton. "We don't know the number of people that will be on the streets, but we pride ourselves in the safety of Mardi Gras, and we'll work very hard to make sure that record isn't marred this year."

One area of particular concern is emergency medical care: Only two of the city's nine hospital emergency rooms are operating for adults. And those, as well as suburban ERs, are typically jammed, even without an influx of hundreds of thousands of revelers.

The first round of Carnival parades went off last weekend with no trouble, but the crowds were small and almost entirely local. Another round of parades began on Thursday and will reach their boozy, bawdy climax on Fat Tuesday.

How many out-of-towners will show is anyone's guess. Medical officials said the number could reach 400,000, less than half the usual 1 million.

The New Orleans Police Department's ranks have shrunk from 1,700 before the storm to 1,450, and it is not clear where the financially ravaged city will get the money for the estimated $1.4 million police overtime. But city officials decided in November to press ahead with the annual party that is so closely identified with the Big Easy.

Making things easier for the police department, the city compressed the usual two weeks of parades into eight days, and designated a single route for all of the marches this year. Another factor working in the department's favor is that Mardi Gras, despite all the raucousness, is usually a remarkably safe event.

In 2004, a shooting along a packed parade route at the peak of the season killed one person and wounded three spectators. But the shooting was a rarity. Most arrests during Carnival are for public urination, while others get into trouble for public nudity, drunkenness or other petty crimes.

In fact, New Orleans police are known nationally for their crowd-control ability.

"The New Orleans Police Department is probably better than any other organization in the U.S. at policing an event like this," said Rafael Goyeneche, director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a police watchdog group. "I think it's because most of them grew up with Mardi Gras; they understand it because they've been attending since they were kids."

Normally, all officers work 12-hour shifts during Mardi Gras. This year, police hope the parades move fast enough to allow many officers to work regular eight-hour shifts. Officers in hotspots like the French Quarter, where the wildest revelry runs almost nonstop from Friday until midnight Tuesday, will still put in 12 hours.

The city had hoped to get as many as four corporate sponsors to pay $2 million each to underwrite Mardi Gras and cover cleanup, crowd control and other expenses, but the plan fell through.

Glad Products Co. did agree to provide 100,000 trash bags and organize volunteers for a post-Carnival cleanup. Glad also pledged to give the city an undisclosed amount of money. In addition, one parade club has donated $50,000 to the police department.

As for the burden on the city's ERs, New Orleans' emergency medical facilities in recent weeks have been seeing about 1,000 patients a day, and that will probably double and maybe triple during Mardi Gras, said James Aiken of the LSU Health Sciences Center.

Plans have been made to place first aid stations along parade routes and to fly out seriously injured patients, Aiken said.

Also, on Wednesday, in a move unrelated to Mardi Gras, a mobile hospital housed in two 53-foot tractor-trailers was brought to New Orleans from Waveland, Miss. It has 60 beds and can provide some emergency care.

Greenfield said friends of hers are coming with their baby only because Greenfield's husband is a doctor. "They wouldn't have taken a chance on needing a doctor and not being able to find one," she said.