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For Mardi Gras, exuberance is a brave show

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans, what remains of it, is throwing a party again.

The first post-Katrina celebration of Mardi Gras, which begins in earnest today, will be four days shorter than past events but no less boisterous and luxuriant, organizers say. The floats are all poised inside hangar-like garages on the city's east bank - the side that stayed dry. And the stockpile of beads and doubloons awaits the roadside throngs to which they will be flung.

And yet even as the hotels begin to fill and the parades prepare to roll, residents of the storm-tossed city acknowledge some uncertainty as they begin this year's installment of New Orleans' defining cultural event.

Will Mardi Gras 2006 be the city's coming-out party? Or perhaps its going-away party?

"I've been open for 20 years, and right now I don't know if I'm going to reopen after Mardi Gras," said Michele Babineaux, owner of Michaul's Live Cajun Music Restaurant on St. Charles Avenue, the main parade route. "Of course we're going to celebrate Mardi Gras. But my staff is all gone, the people are all gone. What am I supposed to do?"

The debate about whether to host a Mardi Gras celebration at all in a city scarred by the flooding and destruction of two hurricanes was brief and seemed hardly to have been taken seriously by many people in New Orleans.

And given the government's limited role in the event - all the parades and balls are organized and paid for by private clubs - it seems unlikely that anyone could have stopped it anyway. Indeed, suburban parades and impromptu marches through the city have begun.

But Mardi Gras will make its concessions to Katrina, limiting the 28 "krewes" permitted to parade in New Orleans to a single route along St. Charles Avenue, a boulevard that ranks among the city's more picturesque and undamaged.

And each parade will have fewer street dancers and marching bands, so they can move more quickly.

The city will have eight days of parades and parties this year, including the final celebration on Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday," Feb. 28. It used to host 12.

Otherwise, organizers promise as much purple, gold and green madness as before, fueled by a particularly potent need to have some fun.

"I know people in other parts of the country don't understand, but this is our way to let it off, to be ourselves, to release all the tension we have and enjoy life," said Ardley Hanemann, vice president and spokesman for the Krewe of Orpheus, which parades on "Lundi Gras," Monday.

"Everyone in New Orleans is so tired, so tense, so angry at the way they've been treated by the federal government. They need Mardi Gras as much as they ever have."

Unlike other Mardi Gras krewes, which generally draw members from within New Orleans' social structure, Orpheus has members from throughout the country. "They're all eager to get back down here," said Hanemann. "Of course, a lot of them haven't seen what the city looks like."

It doesn't look like a place to throw a party. Much of New Orleans north of the parade route looks more like a film set than an American city. Trash and debris are common, evidence of life is often scarce, and the brown lines of muck mark everything with the evidence of Katrina's watery horizon.

Hotel space is at a premium, with roughly 9,000 rooms off the market because of storm damage. And as of early this week 26 percent of the city's restaurants had reopened, according to the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

What this state of affairs means for the Mardi Gras season is uncertain. Hospitals are strained, and trash collection will certainly be tested.

Few expect to see the 1 million or more people who have attended Mardi Gras celebrations in the past, but no one is certain how many people will be manageable in the fractured city.

Among the most affected of New Orleans' krewes is the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, a traditionally black krewe whose annual parade is among the most popular, and whose members are most likely to have lived in neighborhoods that suffered Katrina's worst.

Zulu, down from 1,300 members last year to perhaps 600 this year, plans to follow its march down St. Charles Avenue with a traditional "second line" parade - essentially an informal walking parade - through the city's dark and crumbled neighborhoods to the north.

"It is always hard for a Zulu to afford Mardi Gras," Zulu Vice President Naaman Stewart said in an e-mail. "No doubt it will be difficult for some to choose between repairing their home and throwing beads and coconuts in the street."

A reduced crowd poses a different sort of problem for merchants like Babineaux, who used to gross $250,000 or more during Mardi Gras season.

Her parade-front grandstand, which held 500 people in earlier years, was scaled back to 350 people this year because the building next door collapsed and claimed some of her space.

But few buyers have materialized anyway.

"I decided not to open [this] Saturday. It wasn't worth it to hire a band and bring everyone in," Babineaux said.

"I'm going to let the employees and their families come and have a party. They usually don't get to enjoy Mardi Gras, and this way they'll have some fun. But then what? I don't know."

City officials say this year's succession of parades and parties should be among the safest, confined as they are to a relatively clean and well-policed area of New Orleans.

And some residents hope the scaled-down schedule, and shortage of tourist accommodations, might help to restore the carnival's more innocent, community-oriented heritage, and rescue it from the drunken, chest-baring debauchery that has captured much of Mardi Gras' national reputation.

Barbara Motley hopes so. She doesn't open her St. Charles Avenue bar and cabaret theater on Mardi Gras day anymore, a surrender to the loud crush of bodies that takes over the city.

But whatever Mardi Gras becomes - she thinks it will take a bit of luck to pull it off safely - she also thinks New Orleans is ready for it and in need of it.

"There's an interesting kind of vibe in New Orleans right now among the people who came back. It's like everyone just wants to be around other people," said Motley, owner of Le Chat Noir. "If I can be a sort of armchair psychologist, I think being out in public with other people validates their decision to come back - they're here and it's OK."

"Whatever you think about Mardi Gras itself, you have to understand that this is what New Orleans does. This is the business we're in - leisure, tourism and entertainment," Motley said.

"Holding Mardi Gras after the storm is like announcing in Detroit that you're going to open GM back up after it closed for six months. It means the city has returned."

robert.little@baltsun.com

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