NEW ORLEANS – With the nation more aware than ever of its vulnerability to terrorism, this famously carefree city is going to great lengths to beef up security before the crowds arrive for Mardi Gras.
Ed Muniz, a councilman in suburban Jefferson Parish and the captain of Endymion — one of the biggest parade clubs in New Orleans — is confident that security measures will allow the city's celebrations to be a success.
"Everybody's vigilant, and watching, and if there's a problem then overnight things could change," Muniz says. "But if there's been no problems between now and the time of our parades, we'd expect crowds to be as big as ever."
The Carnival season, which ends with Mardi Gras on Feb. 12, turns much of New Orleans and numerous communities across Louisiana into giant public parties with streets mobbed with people in costume. This year, the Super Bowl will bring even more people to New Orleans on Feb. 3, right in the middle of Carnival.
In a city dependent on tourism, officials are hoping increased visibility of police will ease the minds of those attending the events.
"Since Sept. 11, we've had to go back and review emergency plans not just for major events but overall," said Marlon Defillo, New Orleans deputy chief of police. "We've had to include other agencies that may not have been involved before, like the National Guard ... and we've had to include issues that may involve terrorism."
During the Super Bowl, the Louisiana Superdome will be fortified as never before. For the first time, the U.S. Secret Service is handling stadium security. A no-fly zone extending miles from the stadium will be in effect during the game.
On the days before and after the big game, the city's parade clubs, called krewes, will be taking to the streets with their costumes and floats.
Anna Mae Sciarrotta, owner of a formal wear shop, generally does big business during Mardi Gras, when the dozens of area clubs hold black-tie balls. But she senses some hesitation from this year's participants.
"People are asking how late they can come in to rent their tuxedos. They don't want to commit to spending the money until the last minute," Sciarrotta said. "I know some of the wives feel like they're afraid to ride — that something would happen during the parade."
Eleven krewes have had substantial cancellations since September for Mardi Gras, but mostly for logistical reasons. Those krewes had to reschedule their parades after the Super Bowl was pushed back one week, because of a delay in the NFL season prompted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Muniz's parade was not affected by the Super Bowl change, but he anticipates that higher security will put an end to some Endymion traditions, such as meeting the parade's celebrity guest — this time actor Jason Alexander — with a brass band at the airport.
"It really gets them in the mood, but I guess we may not be able to do that this year, with all the security at the airports," Muniz said.
Some of the Mardi Gras parades are also going patriotic this year to show the Big Easy's support for an uneasy nation.
Organizers of one of the parades — which features a turban-clad figure in its marquee float — changed the turban to now looks like it is made from an American flag, and the figure will be wearing a red and white costume and holding American flags.
"He's going to be really patriotic this year," says Brian Kern, spokesman for Mardi Gras World, the leading float-building business in New Orleans. "Hopefully, that way, he won't get pelted too badly" by the beads and other trinkets that spectators catch during Carnival parades.
Another float will feature New Orleans Saints lineman Kyle Turley dressed as Uncle Sam, throwing red, white and blue beads.
"I'm sure all the major krewes are doing something patriotic," Muniz says. "We're all having a great time here, but with young men and women at war on the other side of the world, you just can't party and forget them."