New Orleans Hopes to Bring Pre-Katrina Mardi Gras Back

Amid myriad problems that have bogged down its recovery, New Orleans is hoping for a rebound for the annual Carnival spectacle that provides a big chunk of its tourist economy.

After Hurricane Katrina, the 2006 parade schedule was cut back to eight days. Many restaurants were still closed while storm refugees and relief workers — instead of tourists — filled hotel rooms.

Those whose livelihoods depend upon the debauchery see signs of a better year. More than three dozen parades are set to roll between Friday night and Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, on Feb. 20.

"It's going to be good," said Blaine Kern, owner of Kern Studios, which is building about 500 floats for parading organizations, known as krewes. "Last year, we got it done. But this year, it's coming back with a vengeance."

Denise Estopinal, a spokeswoman for the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association, said bookings are running at about 80 percent for the weekend leading into Fat Tuesday. Hotels hope to reach the 90 percent figure for the 30,000 rooms available in the New Orleans area, Estopinal said. Last year, half of the 28,000 then-available rooms were taken up by storm recovery efforts.

Restaurants are still plagued by labor shortages in a city where only about half the population is back, said Tom Weatherly, a vice president with the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

Still, according to a count by New Orleans restaurant reviewer Tom Fitzmorris, about 250 restaurants are open in the key business areas of the city, up more than 100 from last year.

Also poised to benefit from this year's Carnival are the makers and sellers of shiny beads, colorful plastic cups and other trinkets thrown to the crowds during parades.

New Orleans Mint turns out about 3 million doubloons — aluminum coins tossed by parade krewes. Pat Finney, who oversees the operation, said she was surprised at the high number of last year's orders and this year krewes are buying more doubloons.

In the last extensive economic study of Mardi Gras — performed for the 2000 season by the University of New Orleans — the total impact was pegged at $1.05 billion. Last year, the usual crowd was down from about 1 million visitors to about 350,000, with local residents doing most of the celebrating, according to UNO. The study did not offer an economic impact figure.

Even the short celebration drew criticism from some that it sent a wrong message to the world so soon after the storm.

"To people in Iowa and Nebraska, it looked like `the guys can't be too bad off, they are partying and drinking in the streets.' They don't understand the business aspect of Mardi Gras," said Barry Barth, owner of Barth Brothers Artists, which built about 100 parade floats.

D&D Creations owner Diane Brown, whose company makes about 15,000 Mardi Gras costumes annually for celebrations in New Orleans and other cities, said that "without Mardi Gras, you wouldn't have tourism."

At New Orleans' international airport, where 110 of the 162 pre-Katrina flights have been restored, Continental Airlines has added an additional 29 inbound and 35 outbound flights for the Mardi Gras season

Despite the drive for tourists, Kern, who has been building floats since 1947, says the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration still has — and always will have — its roots in the local population.

"It's woven so much into the fabric of our society," Kern said. "We're doing this for ourselves. The tourists come and love it, but this is our thing."