New Orleans' Party Is On -- But Should It Be?

ByABC News via via logo

NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 26, 2006 — -- New Orleans has scaled back its Mardi Gras Carnival this year -- with only 28 of the 34 social clubs parading on a schedule reduced from 12 days to eight days. But even the downsized version has some saying the city shouldn't be spending millions on Mardi Gras when there are tens of thousands of people still homeless and jobless.

Vincent Sylvain, a homeowner in the Ninth Ward, is appalled the city would spend the time and money planning Mardi Gras instead of planning to clean up his neighborhood.

With the reduced schedule, Mardi Gras will still cost the city of New Orleans about $2.7 million. Last year it cost about $4.6 million.

"It's inappropriate," Sylvain said. "It's an insult. It's an outrage."

Sylvain worries that if people outside New Orleans only see the way the French Quarter looks, and not the devastation of the Ninth Ward, they'll think things are back to normal.

"No, they're not back to normal in New Orleans," Sylvain said. "The Mardi Gras floats that I'm looking at are the trucks hauling refrigerators, the trucks carrying out the washing machines and dryers."

Former New Orleans resident Alvin Aubert is busy rebuilding five different properties for relatives and friends. In a place with an uncertain future, he's sure of one thing: This is no time for a party.

"I know it's a tradition, but I think we got too much work to do to get people's houses back in order," Aubert said. "We will party. So just get the houses back, get the people back, then we party."

The carnival has been canceled 13 times in its 200 year history, and many say this should have been the 14th time.

But Mardi Gras hasn't been canceled since the Korean War, and the city made a calculated business decision to let the good times roll.

City leaders point to all the revenue Mardi Gras generates -- an estimated $1 billion in a normal year, a large chunk of the region's $5.5 billion annual tourism industry. City officials estimate this year the city will take in about $300 million. They say some of that money will eventually help neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward to rebuild.

"It's a kick-start for the tourism economy," said Sandra Shilstone, CEO of New Orleans Tourism Corp. "And this industry, pre-Katrina, hired 85,000 of the nearly 500,000 people here in this city of New Orleans."

It is not so much about drawing crowds this year, as attendance is significantly down, but about showing off the city and hoping the tourists flock back next year and beyond.

Celebrating Mardi Gras also is important to New Orleans residents who believe having some fun will be therapeutic. So says Blaine Kern, who has been building Mardi Gras floats for 50 years.

"Every time I roll out in a parade, people are like this," Kern said, gesturing to his huge smile. "Everybody's laughing."

Kern, who proudly wears the title Mr. Mardi Gras, said that some people who have lost everything from Hurricane Katrina still want to ride on the floats.

"What happened to us knocked us to our knees," Kern said. "But it's still going to be a great parade. In fact, the last two or three months, some clubs have been doubling their membership."

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