Historians, take note. In the annals of the world's worst natural disasters, there is only one city -- New Orleans -- where the "road to recovery" includes Carnival parade routes. By most accounts, Mardi Gras 2007, the second Carnival since Hurricane Katrina, was a resounding success. "I think it gets an A-plus," says Carnival historian Arthur Hardy. "I don't see much to be sorry about this year other than it's over. ... It was bigger and better than I thought it would be."
We could not agree more. This year's Mardi Gras, like the last, underscored how critical the annual celebration is to the public psyche -- particularly now, 18 arduous months after Hurricane Katrina. The adversity of recent weeks might have killed any other city.
A drumbeat of depressing news about crime and the slow trickle of promised federal recovery funds fed a deepening public malaise. A killer tornado struck on one of Carnival's "dark nights," leaving an elderly woman dead, 36 people injured and dozens of homes badly damaged or destroyed. Going into the weekend before Carnival, a story appeared in The New York Times about New Orleans residents who were giving up and moving out. It felt like a deathblow.
But Carnival here has always been a sanctuary of sorts. This year, New Orleanians instinctively took to the streets, setting aside their worries to cheer on marching bands and colorful floats and to scramble for beads, cups and doubloons. Amid the revelry, we regained some of our characteristic community pride, playful imagination and open-handed compassion. In grand ceremonies and in small, unscripted moments, Carnival reminded us how easily peace and order can be enjoyed.
• At the 31 parades in Orleans Parish, smiling spectators often caught and graciously passed on prized "throws" from float riders to appreciative strangers.
• On Lundi Gras, the King of Zulu and the King of Argus toasted one another at Rivertown in Kenner. It was a symbolic but meaningful gesture of racial healing and regional cooperation that has eluded most elected officials since Katrina.
• In the city proper, Rex and the King of Zulu addressed Mayor Ray Nagin at Gallier Hall on Mardi Gras, eloquently wishing for the return of New Orleans natives swept away by the storm.
Local tourism officials estimate the city saw at least 700,000 Carnival visitors. Some hotels were 95 percent occupied the weekend before Fat Tuesday. That good news followed a January report by The Brookings Institution showing that 90 percent of the city's hotel rooms have reopened since the storm.
Meanwhile, city expenditures and tax revenues from the 10 days of parades (up from eight days last year) have not yet been promulgated.
That said, we caution news media, academics and "think tanks" against measuring post-Katrina Carnivals by data alone. For example, the 534 arrests reported by police this season (up slightly from last year), should be considered in the context of Carnival police practices: You have to be pretty drunk or obnoxious to get arrested by the NOPD on Mardi Gras. We suggest that nontraditional measures, such as the proliferation of costumes, are better indicators of the public mood at Carnival and at this stage of our city's recovery, though admittedly some are difficult to quantify. Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, an architect of the successful inaugural "Family Gras" in the suburbs, correctly noted that costuming requires "an energy" that was not so evident last year, during that first Carnival season after Katrina. "There was a lot of good costuming; more than there was 10 years ago," said Carnival historian and author Errol Laborde, who surveyed the French Quarter area this year.
New Orleans should build on this year's momentum and success by planning for the next Carnival as part of the city's long road to recovery. Mayor Nagin should get things started by asking the mayor's Mardi Gras Task Force -- comprised of city department heads and Carnival krewe captains -- to address several issues:
• A surge of separate violent incidents, although away from the well-patrolled parade routes, brought a disappointing end to the revelry Mardi Gras night. Police and krewes next year should aim to "increase the peace" beyond the parade routes next year.
• Widespread reports of over-zealous traffic ticketing for minor violations soured Carnival for many visitors and created a PR nightmare for the city. The task force should revisit the city's parking restrictions during the Carnival season.
• The Krewe of Thoth returned to its neighborhood route this year for the first time since Katrina. Returning Endymion to Mid-City and other krewes to their old routes would be a worthy goal for 2008.
Finally, New Orleanians should start planning now for a smaller Carnival next year, along with less favorable weather. "Attendance will be down next year," Laborde predicts. Mardi Gras 2008 falls on Feb. 5. Only the 1913 Mardi Gras (Feb. 4) was earlier.
The early date also may pose a scheduling problem -- literally -- for the New Orleans Saints, who were popular float riders at Carnival this year. "The Super Bowl next year will fall on the same night as Bacchus," Laborde noted. "What if the Saints are in the Super Bowl on Bacchus Sunday?" Well, the team could be back from Cardinal Stadium at Glendale, Ariz., in time for a "black and gold" Mardi Gras.
Now that would be a Carnival for the history books!