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Eye on Carnival: 10 years since the pivotal post-Katrina Mardi Gras

NEW ORLEANS – It was a Carnival that many thought wouldn’t happen, six months after Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures devastated the region.

“Katrina knocked us down, but she didn’t knock us out,” said Zulu President Charles Hamilton in his toast at Gallier Hall that day. His words summed up the feeling so many people shared on Fat Tuesday 2006. It was a Mardi Gras that even Katrina couldn’t stop.

Carnival historian Errol Laborde felt that the celebration that year was so crucial, his New Orleans Magazine called it “the most important Mardi Gras ever.” Still, it wasn’t a party everyone was ready to have.

“There was some discussion about maybe we shouldn’t have the parades this year, there are too many people who are suffering, there’s too much damage and what message would it send to the nation, as we’re trying to get their help and at the same time we’re having Mardi Gras parades,” Laborde said.

Mayor Ray Nagin heard that message from some at a town hall meeting for displaced New Orleanians in Atlanta, which famously generated headlines.

“Nobody want no Mardi Gras!  We don’t have no place to live!” said one angry resident at that meeting.

At first, the mayor seemed to go along with the idea of cancelling Mardi Gras, but the krewes and a majority of locals felt the city needed to show its most important celebration was still alive.

“I think we need to do it, this is our coming out party. My gosh, we’ve been down but we’re certainly not out,” said float builder Blaine Kern in 2006.

Though its headquarters was badly damaged and many of its members devastated by the storm and the levee failures, Zulu did roll that sunny February 28th. Rex, whose den and floats also suffered damage, paraded with a theme that fit perfectly: “Beaux Arts and Letters,” celebrating the city’s arts and literature.  As always, the first float featured the King of Carnival, who that year was Paul McIlhenny. His toast at Gallier Hall brought a lump to many people’s throats and tears to a few eyes.

“We in Rex dedicate this day to rebuilding the city, on behalf of all the members of Rex, the Royal Realm.  We would like to hereby remember those that we have lost in the city, honor those that helped save those that were saved, by the police, firemen, the Coast Guard and everybody else.  I would like to ask for just a moment of silence in remembrance and honor of this event and on behalf of those we are thinking about, just for a minute now,” McIlhenny said.

“I still say to this day that that was the greatest Mardi Gras ever because, number one, what it did for the spirit of the people of New Orleans and secondly that it sent a message that we can survive,” said Laborde. “Never did we need to have a Mardi Gras celebration as badly as 2006. It was a great moment in Carnival history.”

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