Bad time for Mardi Gras, say New Orleans activists

Critics say annual event would be impractical, inappropriate after devastation of Katrina


NEW ORLEANS -- A growing chorus of critics, concerned that throwing a huge party would be unseemly and impractical when much of New Orleans remains in ruins, is pressuring authorities to do the unthinkable: call off Mardi Gras.

City officials and tourism leaders have pledged to use an abbreviated carnival this winter as a springboard, a way to reintroduce New Orleans as a viable city. Their October announcement that Mardi Gras would go on despite Hurricane Katrina met with an enormous cheer.

But many community activists - particularly leaders of poor, black neighborhoods that were destroyed by the floodwaters and have sat virtually untouched ever since - have turned against the idea.

"We're not against Mardi Gras. We're against their priorities," ChiQuita Simms, a displaced New Orleans resident who is organizing a protest, said of city leaders. "It is not a time to conduct party planning."

The protest is scheduled to be held in Atlanta - where a large number of displaced New Orleans residents are living - when the Saints travel there for a high-profile Monday Night Football game against the Falcons.

Other community leaders have threatened to launch a petition drive and to erect billboards urging a boycott of the festival if it cannot be derailed.

"Every ounce of their energy and money, everything they have, should be focused on rebuilding the city and the lives of its people," Simms said. "How are you going to have Mardi Gras when you can't tell people when the lights are going to get turned on? It's an insult."

Holding the carnival, Simms said, would give the nation the false impression that New Orleans has recovered from the storm. And the problem is not merely one of image, she said: "Who is going take care of the people who come in? Who is going to clean your hotel room? Who is going to take your luggage at the airport? Who is going to clean up afterward?"

Mayor Ray Nagin leapt into the fray yesterday. While he said that he believes Mardi Gras should go on, he called upon the hotel and tourism industries to devote a portion of the money earned to programs that would help rebuild the city.

"I want to see the industry step up and say we're doing Mardi Gras not just for our profits and for our bottom line, but to support the rebuilding effort," Nagin said. "If they do that, I think the noise will go down."

Many business leaders insist that staging the famed carnival would be essential to the rebuilding effort. Before Katrina left the city depleted and broke, tourism was a $5.5 billion-a-year industry - almost a fifth of that was attributed to Mardi Gras - and supported more than 75,000 jobs. Officials estimate the city has lost $15.2 million every day in direct tourism income since the storm.

"It's critical that we put on a great Mardi Gras," said Dan King, general manager of the New Orleans Sheraton, an 1,110-room downtown hotel. "I know there are those who are questioning whether we can have a celebration when so many people don't have homes. But if we really want to help rebuild the city, one of the best ways we can do that is to bring business back, which creates jobs and tax revenue and primes the pump."

Next year will be the 150th anniversary of the first Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans. Current plans call for an abbreviated, eight-day celebration culminating with Fat Tuesday - the traditional climax, held the day before Ash Wednesday - on Feb. 28. There typically are almost two weeks of parades.

The hotel industry emerged from Katrina relatively intact and has made one of the stronger pitches for moving forward with Mardi Gras. Before the storm, there were 36,000 rooms in New Orleans. There are 25,000 today - although most are occupied by government officials, contractors and insurance adjusters. There will probably be 30,000 rooms ready by Mardi Gras, King said.

Arthur Hardy - a New Orleans resident who has published The Mardi Gras Guide, a popular festival handbook, for three decades - said there are legitimate questions about the scope of the carnival and how the city will cater to visitors. But if Mardi Gras were canceled, he said, "It would be an announcement that New Orleans is not open for business."

It is a critical business decision, he said; convention organizers have told tourism executives that they are going to see how New Orleans handles Mardi Gras before determining whether they return.

But it's not just about money, Hardy said.

"It is entirely correct that we do it even if not one visitor shows up," he said. "It's like group therapy. We need something to cheer about."

Scott Gold writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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