With much of our economy dependent on tourist dollars and large-scale events, Mardi Gras in the wake of Hurricane Katrina has become one of New Orleans' barometers for gauging the city's recovery. By most accounts, this year's "early" Mardi Gras was a qualified success. But does another successful Mardi Gras mean that New Orleans is finally back to normal? With the city still missing nearly 150,000 residents, the short answer is: of course not. But in terms of hosting major events, New Orleans can once again lay claim to being one of the top destination cities in the world.
This year's Carnival faced several major challenges, none of which the city could control: Mardi Gras arrived very early this year (Feb. 5); it had to compete with the Super Bowl on Feb. 3; and the Super Tuesday presidential primaries fell on Fat Tuesday. With spring break still weeks away, the "early" Mardi Gras meant fewer college students making a partying pilgrimage to New Orleans. It also could have translated into fewer tourists overall, considering Fat Tuesday came on the heels of big Christmas credit card bills and the Super Bowl. Fortunately, says Mary Beth Romig, director of communications for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, NOPD estimates indicate that this year's crowds were even larger than those of 2007 " and older and more urbane.
'Visitors were spending more, eating more and spending better," Romig says. "They weren't just enjoying a beverage, they were drinking call brands."
As in past years, Mardi Gras 2008 was an economic boon for the city. Lea Sinclair, director of communications for New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Board, predicts that next year's Carnival will be even better as the city continues to recover. "Because of Katrina, we were crawling in 2006," she says. "We were on our knees in 2007, and in 2008 we were walking. By 2009, we'll be running and back to normal."
Another last-minute challenge was inclement weather, which cancelled all parades on Thursday, Jan. 31. Things improved dramatically right after that, however, and Romig says mild conditions on the second weekend probably persuaded some to journey to the city on short notice. That translated into a citywide hotel occupancy rate above 90 percent, with many of the larger hotels being sold out.
Local Mardi Gras historian Arthur Hardy says that because there were so many challenges to Carnival 2008 " the early season, bouts of bad weather, a Manning in the Super Bowl and the Super Tuesday primaries " it's unfair to compare this year's celebration with those of past years. What Hardy does find comparable is the quality of this year's parades. Overall, he says, marching bands looked and sounded great; throws were plentiful and pretty; and floats were numerous and fantastical. Not everything was perfect, Hardy adds, but Carnival has never been perfect. "I think we're back to pre-Katrina," he says. "There are still some bad [parades], but they were weak before the storm."
More than anything else, Mardi Gras is about tradition. Hardy notes that many traditions continue " such as legendary jazz musician Pete Fountain leading his Half-Fast Walking Club " while some new ones like Family Gras, which Hardy says is blossoming after only two years, are taking hold. John Fortunato, spokesman for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, agrees that Family Gras was "a huge success." He also reports that violent crime did not mar Jefferson Parish's parades. Crimes typically associated with Mardi Gras drinking and revelry weren't out of the ordinary this year, he says, calling them part of the "normal routine for Carnival season."
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Orleans Parish.
According to NOPD statistics, crime in New Orleans increased 43 percent this Mardi Gras compared to last year's Carnival. While it could be argued that the city's population has grown in the past year and that crowds were larger as well, the brazenness of some of this year's incidents makes the spike in Carnival crime even more troublesome. Five shootings occurred near parades, leaving nine people wounded. Although no one died, the shootings left a bloodstain on the 2008 Carnival season. NOPD spokesperson Joe Narcisse and Police Chief Warren Riley have sought to reassure the public by noting that the shooting victims were "intended targets" who could just as easily have "been shot in their own neighborhoods," but that's of no comfort. Stray bullets don't honor neighborhood boundaries or Mardi Gras traditions. How many people, tourists and locals alike, are going to risk being shot during a parade if such violence continues?
NOPD officers caught most of the shooting suspects quickly, but the department and City Hall must get violent crime under control if Mardi Gras is to avoid becoming the latest " and most noteworthy " crime victim in New Orleans. Mardi Gras' most revered tradition is that of being a peaceful celebration of life. We need that tradition to return immediately.