Mardi Gras is still weeks away, but New Orleans police Sgt. Joe Valiente, a 29-year veteran of the force, already has a piece of red glitter in his eye.
He does not see it. Not right away.
Once alerted, he digs into his left eye, then inspects the red speck on the end of his finger. "It came from a king cake sent by Muses," a Carnival krewe, he announces, exaggerating as if he is a detective cracking a case.
His partner Sgt. Danny Mack, 60, deadpans: "I ate mine already."
Valiente doesn't seem to have heard him. The younger cop shows a visitor a miniature king cake on a desk. It's covered with the same kind of red glitter that is splashed around a post-Katrina greeting card taped to the pastry: "There's no place like home."
The glitter could be a good-luck charm for Sgt. Valiente -- the NOPD cop given primary responsibility for the success of the first Mardi Gras since Hurricane Katrina. By any measure, he will need all the luck he can get. Carnival kicks into high gear this weekend amid numerous post-Katrina concerns -- a critical lack of medical-treatment facilities, a housing crunch, and hundreds of disabled traffic lights, to name just a few.
As NOPD's point man on Carnival, Valiente must resolve miscommunications regarding parade operations and reconcile any competing demands that may arise among officials at City Hall, his own police superiors and the "captains" of more than two dozen parade krewes.
"You hate to be responsible for something you can't control, but that is the position you find yourself when you're in Joe's position," Carnival historian Arthur Hardy says, sympathetically.
Valiente is assisted by his "equally important" police partner, Sgt. Danny Mack, a "no-nonsense" cop, Hardy says, noting that "Joe gets the face time."
Valiente takes the lead for Carnival preparations; Mack heads NOPD's planning and permitting responsibilities for all other major events, including Jazz Fest, the Bayou Classic and the Sugar Bowl. Both have put their professional reputations on the line this Carnival season.
In October, the two cops say, they personally guaranteed new Police Chief Warren Riley that the city could host Carnival, its signature event. Specifically, the sergeants said the city could stage the safe, timely, and cost-effective passage of 28 parades. (Six other krewes elected not to parade this year.) Finally, the sergeants told the chief, the city's 150th Mardi Gras could be carried off successfully almost six months to the day after the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
Based in part on conversations with his two veteran sergeants, Chief Riley later announced NOPD's pivotal support for an eight-day Carnival season, down from the traditional 11 days. There would be route changes, shorter parades and other modifications, the chief said.
"We said it could be done," Valiente recalls. "Now, we want to prove it to him."
Now, days before the first major parade, critics still view Carnival 2006 as a big gamble. There's a scramble to secure $2.7 million in corporate funding for overtime pay for police, fire and sanitation workers. Moreover, no one knows how many people will pour into the depopulated city, testing its already strained infrastructure.
A supporting cast of city employees who traditionally help the two sergeants plan for Carnival has been decimated by post-Katrina layoffs. Many of those fortunate enough to keep their jobs lost their homes or have been separated from family members. No strangers to Katrina's misery themselves, Valiente and Mack regard the disaster's aftermath as just another part of their annual challenge.
"If we pull this off, this Mardi Gras will be right up there with the 2002 Super Bowl" Valiente says. That was the year Valiente and Mack juggled planning with federal, state and local agencies to provide security for both the first NFL championship and the first Carnival season after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Both events went off without incident, belying the sergeants' intimations of untold aggravations and challenges behind the scenes.
This Carnival season, the world will watch New Orleans again.
"This Mardi Gras will be the biggest event since Katrina," says Lt. Henry Dean, a contemplative 27 year-veteran of the NOPD.
Capt. Harry Mendoza, veteran commander of the NOPD SWAT team who took charge of traffic two weeks before Katrina, says he wants his Carnival "after-action report" to read as follows: "No one got hurt, the community had a great time and the spirit of New Orleans still lives."
The sergeants say their supervisors have to worry about "the big picture."
"Danny and I are more responsible for 'pushing buttons, pulling levers and blowing whistles,'" Valiente says.
THE TRAFFIC DIVISION'S POST-KATRINA headquarters is a couple of trailers, located in the back of Louis Armstrong Park. Office space is tight.
Visitors are politely asked to wait outside in the parking lot, next to a row of shining blue and white motorcycles. NOPD's entire fleet of 55 bikes survived the storm. Inside the trailer, Valiente suddenly stands up, pushing away from a swivel chair. He is tall and handsome with thick gray hair and a dark mustache, and carries the personable command presence of a circus ringmaster. He introduces a visitor to his work environs, as if a show has just begun.
"That -- is my desk," he announces, pointing to six crates of MREs stacked in a corner.
"That -- is my garbage can," he says of the basketball goal attached to the waste paper basket, (then checks to make sure the green light on the backboard still flashes when a thrower "scores.")
Spinning around, he feigns a frown and points a long, accusing finger across the room at a shorter, tough-looking cop seated in front of a computer.
"And that -- that is my evil partner-in-crime, Danny Mack!" Valiente declares, clearly enjoying his own skit.
Sgt. Mack smiles and waves. He looks like a boxer's "cut" man in a blue police jumpsuit.
At the moment, the rest of the Traffic Division is preparing for the King of Jordan's visit to the devastated Lower Ninth Ward. Mack and Valiente are excused. This time of year, their responsibility is homegrown royalty, not the foreign variety.
Not long ago, Mardi Gras was the farthest thought from the public's -- or NOPD's -- mind. For five days after Katrina leveled the city on Aug. 29, the two cops responsible for planning Carnival slept in the open air on the Robin Street Wharf, along with the rest of the officers in the 59-member Traffic Division.
Most of the city was flooded. Looting, fires, and anxious rooftop rescues displaced the merriment of Carnival as the city's international image. Elderly women and children were dying outside the Dutch Morial Convention Center, where krewes normally held their balls. Some cops were caught looting. Several hundred NOPD officers deserted their posts and fled the city -- but all 59 officers from the Traffic Division stayed on the job, Valiente and Mack say proudly.
Mack lost his home, as did 80 percent of the officers on the force. Valiente's house survived intact. However, he was still reeling from his mother's diagnosis of breast cancer, just days before Katrina -- and the death of his father in June.
Meanwhile, Katrina's floodwaters claimed NOPD's Moss Street facility, including Mack and Valiente's office, faxes, phones and, later, a secretary with 32 years of experience. "There were a lot of elements in the 'machine' that were dismantled in one night, in one day, one storm," Valiente says.
PLANNING FOR CARNIVAL BEGINS in April. The 2006 parade application process started in July.
Valiente and Mack began collecting various permit applications, including a nondiscrimination declaration from all 34 krewes. All of the paperwork was due by the end of September. But the storm scattered the krewe captains throughout the country. Massive city layoffs followed. "We lost key personnel -- and time," Valiente says.
Breakdowns are Public Enemy No. 1 during Carnival, the sergeants say. "The worst thing you can do in a parade is stop," Valiente says.
"Parades are like an accordion," Mack adds. If one part of the procession stops, the rest of the parade loses sync.
Problems multiply. Crowds get restless or disinterested. Gaps widen between floats. Some edgy motorist might try to cross the parade route. The list goes on and on.
A breakdown can be caused by anything from a flat tire on a float, a float rider with a heart attack or (God forbid) a shooting in a crowd. During one parade, a horse dropped dead in the middle of the parade route. A city tow wagon pulled the beast to the side, and the parade continued. "You couldn't have a funeral," Mack says.
"If you are lucky, you can get a parade going again in 20 minutes," Valiente says.
This year, time is especially precious.
Amid post-Katrina budget constraints and police manpower concerns, more parades will be moving in a shorter period of time, the sergeants say.
The average parade takes five hours. To save time, parades have been shortened. For example, crowd-pleasing clowns in dune buggies will be missing this year, says historian Hardy. Floats that fail to roll within 10 minutes after the parade starts will be pulled out, Sgt. Mack warns.
"Mardi Gras is a series of complicated events," Valiente says. "There are so many technical problems, logistical needs and cultural concerns."
The two sergeants split up for each parade, riding in separate NOPD command vans. Valiente takes the front of the procession; Mack supervises the second half of the parade.
Mack says crowds along a parade route cannot hear the excitement inside the silver police command vans, which Valiente -- perhaps diplomatically -- describes as "five-hours of problem-solving."
Mack has a different take: "In spite of the screaming, the hollering, the yelling and the finger-pointing that goes on in the command van, people will tell you, 'That's the best parade I've ever seen in my life.'" The older sergeant smiles.
Katrina has made Mack and Valiente's job even more difficult, and their supervisors know it. "These are abnormal conditions, and that adds to the stress of the job," Lt. Dean says. "You will have krewe members riding floats who have lost their homes and maybe their families."
Carnival traditions have been disrupted as well.
The Louisiana Superdome is still undergoing repairs and cannot be used for Carnival balls and parades this year. The Convention Center will remain a popular party spot for Carnival krewes and parade-goers, but the facility also will serve as a major emergency trauma-care center -- as well as a den for some Carnival floats.
The challenge -- and the irony -- of keeping access routes open for emergency vehicles and Carnival floats to get to the same building is not lost on Mack and Valiente's supervisor. "You've got to like crisis management," Lt. Dean says, with a wry smile.
Mack and Valiente clearly love their jobs, yet they enthusiastically share credit with other city employees. Although Carnival crowds typically see only a few stewards of a smooth-running parade, the cops say dozens of people from the city as well as the private sector plan and scramble behind the scenes to make every procession of floats a moving work of art -- literally.
"There's a lot of chaos in the background -- it's like a play," Valiente says. "Danny and I rely heavily on many people."
The supporting cast includes traffic engineers who check the signal lights on parade routes, emergency medical service (EMS) technicians who stay ready to extract an injured float rider or spectator, tree-branch cutters from Park and Parkways who clear paths for floats -- and more. Among their police brethren, Mack and Valiente are eager to work with Sgt. David Carter, who has returned to duty since being shot and seriously wounded by a mental patient in April. Carter will oversee the distribution of 3,400 steel barricades, a key element in the city's annual crowd control plan.
At City Hall, the annual marshaling of Carnival support troops seems more like a tonic than a burden to civil servants, Valiente says. "In city meetings, people are looking forward to this," he says. "Their eyes are lighting up; the wheels are turning again."
Despite little sleep and long hours, the anticipation of Mardi Gras is building inside the police trailer in the back of Armstrong Park. The two cops are getting pumped.
"People on the East Coast bake clams," Valiente says. "People on the West Coast go surfing. In New Orleans, we parade. That's how we express ourselves, through our music and our culture."
"That's right," Mack adds. "We parade -- at Mardi Gras, after we marry, and when we die."
Valiente smiles. There's no Carnival glitter in his eye, but there is a twinkle.
"If we pull this off, this Mardi Gras will be right up there with the 2002 Super Bowl."
-- NOPD Sgt. Joe Valiente
Several hundred NOPD officers deserted their posts and fled the city after Katrina but all 59 officers from the Traffic Division stayed on the job.