New Orleans Still Wants To Celebrate 150th Mardi Gras

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In the days after Hurricane Katrina hit, Blaine Kern -- "Mr. Mardi Gras" in this city -- hardly felt like partying.

Storm winds hammered his 75,000-square-foot warehouse complex on the west bank of the Mississippi River, where his artists build most of the carnival floats each year. Some of Kern's favorite giant figures were damaged. "Dracula lost his clothes. The Mummy lost his robes," he says. In his east bank studio, Kern, 79, says he found "6 feet of water and a dead man. We still don't know who he was."

But Kern, whose family has lived in the Algiers neighborhood for generations, says he quickly began to focus on the importance of the 2006 Mardi Gras -- the 150th anniversary of the pre-Lent bacchanal -- going forward, at least in some form.

"We've got to have this party," Kern says, even as he points to the National Guard troops still handing out food and water from his parking lot. "We've got to show the world that we're down but not out."

Local officials from Mayor Ray Nagin on down agree. Plans are moving forward for a shortened Mardi Gras season that would include six days of parades rather than 11, culminating on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 28.

Nagin will meet with his carnival advisory committee today to decide on the Mardi Gras schedule. The last carnival to be canceled was during the Korean War in the early 1950s.

'This is about business'

The major reason for pushing ahead with Mardi Gras despite the devastation Katrina brought to New Orleans is that it normally is a $1 billion-a-year enterprise -- and right now, this battered city has little besides tourism to look to for revenue. "This isn't about fun. This is about business," Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu says. "We're in the business of producing cultural events, and that business produces tremendous economic impact and provides jobs."

City studies have found Mardi Gras produces $900 million in annual spending and nearly $50 million in direct tax benefits. The emotional lift of a successful Mardi Gras could be just as important for the demoralized city.

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