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Let the good times roll (but not too much)

Big Easy struggles with post-Katrina Mardi Gras

By Thom Patterson
CNN

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Women call out for beads in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras festivities Friday.

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(CNN) -- New Orleans, which embodies the spirit of Mardi Gras for much of the world, has consolidated its signature celebration away from damaged areas as the city struggles to find its footing after Hurricane Katrina.

"We have no model for this," says Arthur Hardy, longtime publisher of Mardi Gras Guide magazine. "Will the city ever be back to normal? We don't know. All I can tell you is we're going to enjoy this Mardi Gras."

New Orleans parades celebrating Carnival (the Christian season leading up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent) began last Saturday and continue through Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday -- or in French, Mardi Gras. (Mardi Gras traditions)

Unlike the multiple parade routes of past years, planners have channeled processions along a single path -- away from lingering Katrina eyesores -- and largely along picturesque St. Charles Avenue. Some of the parades will end at the city's infamous convention center, where thousands of suffering residents awaited rescue in the days after the hurricane's wind, rain and floods.

Byron Mercier, 51, will be riding on a Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club float in Tuesday's parade. He expects to pass by the convention center. "You have mixed emotions. You feel for the people who were there and had to go through that and I personally know some people who did that and they're fine," he says. "So it's not going to be a negative thing with me."

The Crescent City remains deeply divided about whether to hold its 150th official Mardi Gras festival at all. Many damaged homes and businesses sit unoccupied after the storm and evacuations that have dwindled New Orleans permanent residents from nearly 500,000 to just over 156,000.

Along with the route, the parades themselves will be shorter and fewer, says Hardy, 59, who's been participating in city Carnival celebrations since 1958. "We're having 28 parades instead of 34 this year. And instead of parading on 11 days, that's been compressed to eight days.''

But, he said, "Not having it would be like not having Christmas."

Walter Francis, 57, who lost family and property in the disaster, says it's too soon after the tragedy to hold the parades. "I really don't think the city is prepared. There's so much that still needs to be done. There's so many homes that are still vacant, there's so many people that have not had the opportunity to come back because they have no place to live." (Watch New Orleanians square off about whether it's too soon -- 2:35)

Lifelong New Orleans resident Larry Hammond, also a member of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, struggled before deciding to ride in the parade. He says Mardi Gras acts as a desperately needed "release."

"This is my therapy," Hammond says. "I think I made the right decision. There's nothing happening in the city now, other than contractors, and building and repair work going on and there's nothing to remove you from that. We need this."

The parade security force is smaller this year, but so is the number of expected revelers from out of town.

The city's convention and visitor's bureau is expecting only 60 to 70 percent of the usual number of Mardi Gras weekend visitors, perhaps as many as 400,000.

Of 28,000 hotel rooms in the downtown area, about 23,000 are operable. About two-thirds of the 23,000 are open to tourists, the bureau says. Hotels were about 95 percent occupied as of this week. (Mardi Gras to fatten New Orleans tourism)

Kickoff parades last Saturday and Sunday went well, says New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley. And authorities say they're ready for the big weekend.

"We have over 1,400 officers, 700 or 800 will be on the route," Riley says. "We have 150 state troopers here and some assistance from the National Guard. We feel confident about our ability to handle this situation."

Agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will also help with security, and the city has requested other assistance from federal authorities.

No curfews will be in effect, police said, other than the usual weekend deadline for juveniles to be off the streets by 11 p.m.

But Riley says the city is only equipped to handle only a third of the number of medical incidents during a typical Mardi Gras weekend -- 1,000 compared to the usual 3,000.

"With the reduced crowds, we think that we'll be OK," Riley says.

Much of the common parade route will roll down historic St. Charles Avenue, which Katrina spared from flooding and other major damage. Planners avoided the Mid-City area, with its "considerable amount of unoccupied buildings and badly damaged homes," according to police Capt. Juan Quinton. St. Charles Avenue "was affected by wind damage considerably -- tremendous amounts of wind damage -- but there was no water damage along the parade route."

Riley agrees that the city is of two minds when it comes to this year's Mardi Gras. "There are people within this community who realize the devastation but feel the need to continue to live life and enjoy life and to move forward. This should be a big boost to the city as far as revenue," Riley says.

"And then there are people here who also wonder why we're having Mardi Gras, why there is a Mardi Gras. So you can't make everybody happy but you still have to move forward."

New Orleans' Carnivals in the past have topped $1.56 billion in spending, according to a University of New Orleans study, Hardy says.

"We don't expect anything near that this year, but it will make money for the city. But more importantly, I think, just emotionally, it gets us back on our feet."

CNN's Susan Roesgen contributed to this report.

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