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Welcome back party for The Big Easy

As in past years, labor attorney Eve Marie Stocker plans to fly from Virginia to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, ride costumed on a float with her mother in the all-female Krewe of Iris parade and catch up with family and friends.

This year, however, she says the mission takes on a serious note: New Orleans, venturing into an uncertain Mardi Gras season after Hurricane Katrina, needs a successful celebration to get its sputtering economy started - and give its storm-shocked residents a break.

"Mardi Gras is a compass," said Stocker, a former New Orleans resident. "This is what's normal for the city, and everyone needs a little bit of normalcy."

Mardi Gras, which always holds a bit of mystery for outsiders with its fun, frolic and debauchery, is a mystery itself this year for New Orleans, where an estimated two-thirds of its half-million, pre-Katrina populace remains elsewhere.

While participants often number more than 1-million, and the typical economic effect is pegged at $1-billion, no one really knows what to expect.

It's tricky for out-of-towners to make plans because hotel rooms remain clogged with storm evacuees and recovery workers, a sharply reduced number of airline seats into New Orleans are in high demand and restaurants are struggling with labor shortages to get back in business.

Any infusion of cash will be welcome in a city that saw most of its tax base washed away by Katrina on Aug. 29 and the ensuing flooding after levees broke. Basic services, such as police protection and firefighting, are being held together with a $120-million federal loan that will provide funding only until spring.

Because of tight money, this year's Mardi Gras has been scaled back from its usual 12 or so days to eight, starting on Saturday and culminating Feb. 28, or Fat Tuesday. For the first time in 150 years of Carnival, the city is looking to corporate sponsors to underwrite the celebration.

Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he's hoping for an economic boost along the lines of a Super Bowl, which brought in an estimated $400-million during its last visit to New Orleans in 2002.

"We're expecting not only a lot of out-of-state tourists, but a lot of New Orleans residents to drive in with their families," Perry said. "It may not be the largest, but it will be the most emotional and important of all our Mardi Gras."

Big or not, Mardi Gras will kick off the return of the tourist and convention business to New Orleans. The next big event will be the Jazz & Heritage Festival in late April and early May.

The city, whose giant convention center is a couple of months away from reopening, is expected to see only about one-quarter of its typical convention business in 2006. Convention officials have said Katrina's strike, which wiped out four months of the meetings business in 2005, cost the region's economy $3.5-billion last year in lost business.

"Mardi Gras will be the launch pad," Perry said.

But questions remain, the first being how many hotel rooms will be available for visitors. The federal government, which originally wanted evacuees out of hotels by November, has pushed backed the date on several occasions.

At the start of February, 22,000 of the New Orleans area's 38,000 pre-Katrina rooms were usable. Of those, 14,000 were taken by evacuees and disaster-assistance workers. About 6,000 are expected to come on line by Mardi Gras.

"We don't expect that to be a major problem," Perry said.

Frank Quinn, sales director for New Orleans Fine Hotels Inc., which owns 10 hotels in the city, said his company is marketing about 20 percent of its 2,000 rooms for Mardi Gras while trying to complete renovations on others not used since Katrina.

"We're seeing a strong demand for Mardi Gras and every other day," Quinn said. "People want to see the city, support it, as well as see the devastation."

Louis Armstrong International Airport, running less than half of its 166 daily pre-Katrina flights, expects large crowds, though it's uncertain how many will be pure revelers.

"Everything's been full since the storm," said Michelle Duffourc of the airport. "We expect it to remain full and be even more full."

Southwest Airlines, the airport's largest carrier before Katrina, is adding 18 flights in and out of New Orleans to Orlando, Houston and Dallas from Feb. 24 through March 4 to handle Mardi Gras travelers. "The forward bookings are looking good," said Paula Berg of Southwest. "Within a few days of announcing the flights, they were beginning to fill in nicely."

The city's famed food scene is struggling to regain its footing.

Before the storm, metropolitan New Orleans had 3,414 restaurants that generated $2.1-billion in annual sales, according to the Louisiana Restaurant Association. Since Katrina, roughly one-third of those restaurants have reopened, the association said last week.

Veteran New Orleans restaurant critic Tom Fitzmorris counts nearly 140 restaurants running in Mardi Gras-oriented areas of the Central Business District, French Quarter and Uptown New Orleans, though many are operating with limited menus and shorter hours.

"Staffing is still our biggest single issue," said LRA vice president Tom Weatherly, "But restaurateurs understand the challenge. They understand the market. They understand they not only need it, but the city needs it too."

This year's Mardi Gras celebrations have been scaled back to eight days from the traditional 12 because of tight money.

Mardi Gras float designer Blaine Kern of Kern's Mardi Gras World in New Orleans shows off the Zululand Ambassador prop that will be used in this year's parades."Mardi Gras will be the launch pad" for the city's recovery, said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.