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Let the good times roll

It's Mardi Gras, and the grand parade floats roll slowly down Canal Street.

Tipsy tourists - at least the few who have shown up - clamor for strands of flying beads. They keep their backs to the businesses covered in plywood, still shuttered six months after looters shattered the windows as the city filled with water.

Uptown, folks are drinking hurricane cocktails out of oversized plastic cups and grooving to jazz in the French Quarter clubs.

Across town, the Salvation Army food truck is serving hot meals at an abandoned gas station and 83-year-old Herbert Gettridge is shoveling sludge from the industrial canal out of his front yard. He is sleeping in his truck and dreaming of moving back into his home before he dies.

New Orleans is not fully recovered, nowhere near. This is evident in things large and small. Entire neighborhoods are empty. Only two of the city's nine emergency rooms are open. Tourists can spend days in a hotel without seeing a housekeeper. Nearly half of the city's population has not returned, and those that are here must deal with widespread power outages and 20-foot mountains of moldering storm debris.

Carnival - the days-long street festival that ends Tuesday with Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) - is in full swing this weekend. This Catholic, pre-Lent tradition is supposed to show the world that New Orleans is back in the business of partying.

It's back, all right.

But it's battered and more than a little angry.

Nowhere was this more evident than on Thursday night, when the Krewe of Chaos took its 12 floats down the abbreviated parade route. The crowds and the floats covered the same streets where, six months ago, exhausted storm victims staggered to the overcrowded Superdome shelter, and where the military rolled in, too late to save people trapped by water pouring from broken levees.

Given all that, the theme, "Hades, a Dream of Chaos," seemed like a natural.

Their floats were macabre and seething, depicting flames and torrents of water. Politicians morphed into giant, fire-breathing monsters and the people of New Orleans were shown as small souls lost in a toxic gumbo pot.

Each float had its own theme: "Homeland Insecurity" (taking aim at former FEMA chief Michael Brown), "The Carpetbaggers" (the contractors who are cleaning and repairing the city), and "Ministers of Misinformation" (the national media). President Bush's name wasn't mentioned - he was simply depicted as Satan.

"It's kind of cathartic to laugh about the city's plight," said 40-year-old Keith Harris, an electrician who lost everything in his Gentilly home to the flood.

"I'm trying to spirit the feeling here," he said as he videotaped the marching bands and the floats. "Life must go on. It's gotta go on."

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Mardi Gras, and it nearly didn't happen. Some city officials, including Mayor Ray Nagin, questioned whether les bon temps really should roulez.

In the end, the lure of tourist dollars won. The city decided to let "the good times roll," but shortened the festival from 12 to eight days.

Only 28 of the 34 Krewes are scheduled to march. Most will use one standard parade route, which starts in the rich, white Garden District neighborhood and winds toward Canal Street and the French Quarter. Many of the smaller neighborhoods, both white and black, where more family-oriented parades once traveled, are destroyed.

Gettridge, the 83-year-old, isn't going to Mardi Gras for the first time in decades. He doesn't think the city should be spending the money for police protection and trash cleanup downtown.

"I ain't got no feelings to party, because I am trying to get back into my home," said Gettridge. "I think the city should be helping people get back into their homes."

Gettridge is the only person in his Lower 9th Ward neighborhood even close to moving back in; he's also the only person who has returned to his block.

He lives three blocks from where a barge broke through a levee, and water leveled the neighborhood. Because he built his home 54 years ago out of concrete, the structure withstood the water's fury. But none of his belongings did.

He has spent the past three months gutting the home himself and is insulted by some officials' suggestion that the Lower 9th Ward should be bulldozed.

"I built this house by my lonely self with these two," he said, holding up his orange-gloved hands. "So why shouldn't I come back?"

Annie Williams, another 9th Ward resident who spends her days gutting her bungalow, refuses to go to Mardi Gras. For one thing, she has to drive back and forth to Baton Rouge every day because there's nowhere to live in the city.

Anyway, she says, "I don't have no spirit to celebrate."

Like many African-American citizens of New Orleans, Williams, 49, worries that developers are coming in, pricing all the black folks out of town. It's just like Mardi Gras, she said: The people in power want the tourists to see the beautiful, white neighborhoods during the parades, while the black neighborhoods are ignored.

Yet Mardi Gras holds a place in Williams' heart: One of the few things she salvaged from the floodwaters was her mother-in-law's Mardi Gras doubloon collection. The little metal coins tossed from floats sit in a cruddy pile, in a sagging box on the floor of the musty bungalow.

It's unclear exactly how many people will return to the city on Tuesday for the biggest parades - Rex and Zulu.

The tourism infrastructure is fragile at best because of the lack of workers: About 160 of the city's 265 hotels still haven't opened, and the ones that are open are filled with housing contractors, hurricane victims and aid workers. Many of the people who worked in tourism lived in the 9th Ward, and that is all but a ghost town. What restaurants there are close at a fogyish 10 p.m. - even in the French Quarter, known for its round-the-clock party atmosphere. Even Marie Laveau's famous House of Voodoo shuts down long before the witching hour.

If the crowds for the other parades are any indication, the number of visitors is way down. In past years, a crush of people would fill Canal Street's wide boulevard and median. To snag a strand of beads would require bringing your own stepladder and wading through a crowd 10 deep.

Now, it's easy to get a spot right next to the police barricade.

"It's really a pathetic Mardi Gras," observed New Orleans police Officer C.L. Clement, who added he has seen fewer drunks and naked women this year.

But that was Thursday. By early Saturday morning, Bourbon Street in the French Quarter had regained some of its famed debauchery. Bars overflowed with people, many of them staggering drunk. One strip club manager said it was the best night of business since before the hurricane.

It almost looked like life back to normal. More than a few men tried to climb light poles and more than a few women bared their breasts for a strand of thrown beads. The Girls Gone Wild video crew had set up on a balcony, and other amateur photographers were eager to capture the frenzy.

Others, like Drake Mosier of Half Moon Bay, Calif., stood atop a balcony and watched the madness with a mixture of amusement and hope. A veteran Mardi Gras tourist, Mosier, 39, said the crowds were slightly thinner than in years past. But, he assessed, "The city is going to be okay."

"If there's going to be anything to pull this community up by the bootstraps, it's going to be this," Mosier said. "The show must go on."

Tamara Lush can be reached at lushsptimes or (727) 893-8612.



A look at how Katrina affected Louisiana:

POPULATION: An estimated 189,000 New Orleans residents have returned, compared with around 500,000 pre-Katrina.

DEATHS: 1,080 in Louisiana.

MISSING: Nearly 2,000 listed as missing by the Find Family National Call Center.

DESTROYED HOUSES: More than 215,000. Total housing units lost, including apartments, is 1,847,181.

PROPERTY AND INFRASTRUCTURE LOSSES: $75-billion to $100-billion.

DEBRIS: Katrina created 60.3-million cubic yards; 32.1-million cubic yards had been removed as of February.

BUSINESSES: Of 81,000 affected businesses, 42,000 have fully reopened; 18,700 were destroyed.

TAX REVENUE: $549-million lost (including gambling, sales and income taxes.)

SCHOOLS: More than 835 schools damaged statewide. Only 20 out of 128 public schools have reopened in New Orleans; 83,821 of 244,608 college students statewide were displaced. Of the displaced college students, only 16,480 have re-enrolled in state.

JOBS: More than 220,000 lost.

WETLANDS: More than 100 square miles of wetland destroyed by storm surge.

HOSPITALS: Katrina closed eight of 16 hospitals in the New Orleans' area, reducing the number of hospital beds from 4,083 to 1,760.

ELECTRICITY: A total of 189,000 households and businesses received electricity from Entergy New Orleans pre-Katrina, compared with between 65,000 to 70,000 today.

GAS: A total of 145,000 customers in New Orleans received natural gas service from Entergy New Orleans before Katrina. Between 40,000 to 45,000 are using the service today.

ESTIMATED DAMAGE TO POWER INFRASTRUCTURE: $275-million in infrastructure repairs in New Orleans.

Sources: Louisiana Recovery Authority, Entergy New Orleans.