New Orleans prepares for return of Mardi Gras after hurricane and Covid

There was plenty of water on Bourbon Street last week as a major storm that hit the southern United States led to widespread rain and unusually cold temperatures. However it didn’t stop the spirit of New Orleans, which is gearing up for the high points of its traditional Mardi Gras carnival after a year which has seen it hit by both Covid and a hurricane.

Mardi Gras itself, which takes place on Shrove Tuesday – the day before the start of Lent – is not until the beginning of March. However, the carnival season begins on January 6th, so it runs for longer this year as Easter is late.

Already work crews are erecting seating platforms across the city for the hundreds of thousands of people, locals and tourists alike who will flock to New Orleans in the coming weeks.

The Mardi Gras festivities still face some problems. A shortage of volunteer police officers has affected the plans and is likely to lead to some parades being altered or shortened.

Mardi Gras in February 2020 was considered in some quarters to have acted as a Covid-19 “super-spreader event”in the region, and city authorities in New Orleans remain conscious of the dangers. Vaccination certificates are policed strictly at the entrances to most restaurants and bars as a condition of entry.

Mardi Gras last year was cancelled due to Covid. And as one local said while waiting for the start of a parade last weekend, “the spirit of the city is just waiting to explode”.

Gulf coast

The Mardi Gras festivities have been going on in New Orleans since the 1850s. The original organisers came from Alabama, where similar events could be dated back to about 1700, when, it is claimed, a French Canadian explorer threw a party after landing on the gulf coast.

Initially in New Orleans the social organisations or clubs – known as “krewes”– which hosted the parades tended to be the preserves of the elites in the city.

Later on the excluded groups – whether they be Irish, Italian, German, African American or women – started their own similar organisations.

Elaborate masks – as well as costumes – have been associated with Mardi Gras since long before they became obligatory with the arrival of Covid.

In New Orleans a significant portion of the year would seem to be spent by organisers planning the host of parties and parades to run from just after Christmas to Lent, as well as working on an extraordinary array of floats and outfits.

One member of the krewe of Endymion, who spoke to The Irish Times, said its parade would involve about 3,000 people. And it won’t be without celebrity endorsement.

The post-parade “Endymion Extravaganza” in the Caesars Superdome in the city will feature American pop icon Diana Ross and the band Maroon 5.

Last weekend it was the turn of the 900-member Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus to take to the streets with their distinctively science fiction and particularly Star Wars-related parade.

It was what is known as a walking parade featuring about 100 contraptions and devices which were variously pushed, pulled or pedalled rather than involving motorised floats. Some were elaborate and sophisticated. Others less so. Overall there was a light hearted, tongue-in-cheek element to the proceedings.

There were legions of imperial star-troopers and assorted impromptu light sabre duels on the streets.

And every hair stylist in Louisiana must have been booked out all day as dozens of lookalike Princess Leias with the trademark double-side buns – a la Carrie Fisher from the original 1977 Star Wars movie – paraded through the French district.

Hurricane Katrina

Those who have not been back to New Orleans in several years – particularly since Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago which saw 80 per cent of the city flooded – will notice many changes.

There are more tall buildings and, it may be the onset of age, but Bourbon Street sounds and seems louder than before. However, the traditional live jazz clubs can still be found on Frenchman’s Street.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans remains one of the great interactive experiences. The parades are not just viewed as a spectacle.

Many in the crowds dress in the traditional green, purple and gold costumes, wear face masks and hats and compete for the beads thrown from passing floats.

Covid may have changed the world. And New Orleans is still recovering from a hurricane that hit only last August, 16 years to the day after Katrina. Workmen could still be seen fixing some house roofs last weekend.

But the focus of the city is on partying.

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