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The saints come marching in


Six months after Katrina, much of what the rest of the nation loves about New Orleans is once again on display. Mardi Gras celebrations tonight feature trademark parades with their grotesque puppets and floats, accompanied by the city's unmistakable blend of blues, jazz and zydeco.

That Big Easy notion of enjoying life to the fullest before Lent arrives is perhaps even more poignant for a Gulf Coast region still very much in doubt about its future.

Beyond the gaze of tourists, there is still a huge void in the legal, cultural and institutional underpinnings of New Orleans that not only give the city its flavor and but also make it tolerable to live there.

Fewer than half the city's 462,269 residents have returned; the black middle class in particular has disappeared. Neighborhoods, schools, courts and basic public services remain in a shambles. Two thousand people are still missing; officials suspect some lie dead in the ruins of their homes.

Not everyone in New Orleans was eager to celebrate Mardi Gras under the circumstances. But the choice to do so yielded some obvious benefits: a distraction for people trying to recover from incalculable loss, a desperately needed infusion of cash from a million tourists, and a trumpet blast reminder to the rest of the nation that Katrina's devastation is far from repaired.

The occasion should serve as the catalyst to persuade the Bush administration to stop dragging its feet and work in earnest with local officials to finance recovery and reconstruction plans, as the president promised.

New Orleans and other coastal towns in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama will never be quite the same again - and shouldn't be, given their vulnerability to flooding.

Even so, wrenching decisions will be required over the next few months about which communities should be rebuilt while others are converted to more practical purposes and their residents relocated.

In some ways, the city is already moving forward. A new crop of charter schools has sprung up to supplement the still mostly closed New Orleans public system, which was an underperforming disaster long before Katrina.

Most difficult will likely be restoring a New Orleans that has lost 300 years of patina, human and otherwise. If all that remains is the French Quarter and the Garden District with affluent suburbanites on the outskirts, Mardi Gras could become but a pale reminder of a past too rich to be replaced.

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