The first Mardi Gras parade since Hurricane Katrina marched through the French Quarter of New Orleans pulling carts with blue tarpaulins, effigies of Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco and floats with themes such as “Give Me That Mould Time Religion".
The Krewe du Vieux, one of the carnival’s earliest parades which is known for satire, lampooned Katrina and public officials blamed for the bungled response to the catastrophe in their parade Saturday themed “C’est Levee,” a play on the French phrase meaning “that’s life".
Mardi Gras has long been an occasion for the city to laugh at tragedy and aim barbs at authorities. Given all the pain New Orleans has suffered in the past year, the irreverence should reach new heights this season.
“It is hard living here now. We need to have our opportunity to release,” said organiser Keith Twitchell. “If you don’t laugh, you’re dead. There’s a lot to cry about here.”
One display asked France to buy Louisiana back, suggesting the state might get better treatment than it has from the American government. Another float was themed “Fridge Over Troubled Water.” In place of a parade map, the Krewe du Vieux had a “projected path” adorned with a swirly hurricane symbol.
Still, in the midst of revelry and satire, even the city known as the Big Easy has a serious side.
The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, a 90-year-old historically black group that holds one of the city’s most beloved parades, held a service and lit 10 candles in honour of club members who have died since the storm. An eleventh was lit to honour the hundreds of people killed by Katrina.
Mardi Gras parades typically run on weekends leading up to and on Mardi Gras, which falls on February 28 this year, almost exactly six months after the August 29 storm. The parades are put on by private clubs across the city; Krewe du Vieux is a smaller French Quarter parade that runs in advance of the major parades.
Masked riders in the parades have long used the opportunity to mock the ruling class and government officials, said Mardi Gras expert Arthur Hardy. The tradition goes back to 1873, when the Mistick Krewe of Comus themed its parade “The Missing Links to Darwin’s Origin of the Species” and portrayed Union General Ulysses S. Grant as a tobacco grub.
Hardy said the satire serves as a coping mechanism.
“It’s almost like you laugh to keep from crying. It’s chance to say ‘This can’t keep us down,”’ he said.
Even groups that are typically less tongue-in-cheek are taking swipes at the storm and politicians this year.
The Krewe of Carrollton, which holds its parade on February 19, chose the theme “Blue Roof Blues” – a reference to the tarpaulins protecting damaged and leaky roofs. The Krewe of Mid-City will use blue tarpaulins along the bottom of its floats – in part out of necessity because of flooding at its warehouse.
The Mid-City parade, scheduled for February 26, will have floats called “New Orleans Culture” – that’s culture as in mould – and “I drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was gone,” a bitter twist on the line from Don McLean’s American Pie.