Cover Story

Holiday blues

A still-devastated New Orleans celebrates Mardi Gras as residents try to salvage wrecked neighborhoods

Issue: "Muddy Gras," March 4, 2006

NEW ORLEANS- Angelo Peltier drove nearly 400 miles from his apartment in Houston just to make the first of two weekends of Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans leading up to Fat Tuesday. Sporting a strand of gold beads, Mr. Peltier leaned against a black pickup truck with two friends, waiting for an afternoon parade to begin in the streets of St. Bernard Parish. As the elaborate floats began to roll and beads began to fly, Mr. Peltier talked about the home he lost to Hurricane Katrina nearly six months ago: It was sitting gutted and largely ruined less than two miles away. "We lost everything," he said.

Mr. Peltier isn't alone. Miles of modest homes in St. Bernard Parish-just east of New Orleans across the Industrial Canal-were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina last August when levees failed and allowed a massive wall of water into the community. Six months later the water is gone, but St. Bernard Parish, along with large swaths of New Orleans, looks largely the same: Homes lie flattened in piles, streets remain littered with ruined cars and debris, and snapped power lines swing from battered poles.

The destruction makes for a surreal parade setting. Pockets of carnival-goers lined the main drag in St. Bernard Parish, setting up picnics and camping chairs in front of hollowed-out storefronts and collapsed roofs. An abbreviated 2006 Mardi Gras schedule includes two dozen parades in other spots around town. Many are family-friendly affairs with lots of children, fancy floats, and middle-school marching bands.

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A week before the parades began, city officials were still looking for a corporate sponsor to pick up the tab for extra police security and cleanup. Only one company, Glad Products, stepped forward, offering an unspecified six-figure donation and 100,000 trash bags. Two days before the parades began, the New Orleans city council voted unanimously to dig into its already busted budget to foot the $2.7 million bill, though no one knows where the money will come from. Officials say they hope Mardi Gras will pay for itself by drawing tourists back to the city, but during the carnival's first weekend, crowds were thin and store managers in the French Quarter said business was disappointingly slow.

None of that mattered to Mr. Peltier, who lived his entire life in St. Bernard Parish before the storm drove him and his family out. Standing next to neighbors he hadn't seen in months, Mr. Peltier said keeping the Mardi Gras tradition is important: "Everyone is so dispersed, when you get a chance to get back together, it's good. . . . We just want to get a sense of normalcy."

While there may be plenty of beads to go around this Mardi Gras season, normalcy is in short supply. Hotels remain full of contractors, emergency workers, and evacuees. The city estimates that less than 200,000 of its original 465,000 residents have returned. More than 66 percent of the city's remaining homes and businesses have no electricity, primarily because the city has only a handful of electrical inspectors to complete the inspections required to restore power to structures that sustained damage.

FEMA trailers dot the landscape, though thousands of residents are still waiting for mobile units while stuck behind a quagmire of both federal and city red tape. Scores of residents are waiting to find out if long-delayed FEMA flood maps will require them to buy more insurance and raise their homes-an expensive project that can cost as much as $10,000 per foot. Thousands more are waiting for word on whether their devastated homes and neighborhoods will be bulldozed.

Waiting, waiting, and waiting are nothing new for Jerry Kramer. The conservative pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation, located in New Orleans' low-lying Broadmoor neighborhood, spent a year-and-a-half as a missionary in Tanzania before being installed as rector at the Broadmoor church one month before Hurricane Katrina hit. Mr. Kramer, 38, and his family had hoped to be career missionaries in Africa but returned to the United States when their visas were revoked last year. Now, Mr. Kramer says, he realizes that "Africa was preparing us for this."

Mr. Kramer talks about the church's ordeal-and their hopes for the future-on a Friday evening from a secondhand couch in a small apartment in Kenner, just outside the New Orleans city limits. His family's bright yellow, two-story home in Broadmoor filled with water after Katrina, like everything else in the working-class neighborhood. Mr. Kramer was able to save a few pieces of clothing and his son's hamster from the home's second floor. "Everything else is gone," he says.

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