Yesterday, I attended my first-ever Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans. Attending the city’s legendary Fat Tuesday series of parades and traditions has inspired a kind of unofficial “bucket list” of things I’ve always wanted to do (and always put off until later) as I approach my 50th birthday next month. But more significantly, it was an ideal time to check the pulse of a city still recovering–both in terms of buildings and infrastructure as well as its psyche–from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina nearly five years ago. The persistent question about New Orleans After Katrina: Have things really improved?
I was among the people around the world who watched in disbelief, at the end of August 2005, as 80% of New Orleans was submerged under water when the levees protecting the city failed and relief efforts were both late and ineffectual with horrendous results for New Orleans residents. I was also among the people around the world who watched with a different brand of incredulity as the New Orleans Saints, a franchise with a decades-long tradition of ineptitude, won the Super Bowl a couple weeks ago, losing only three games along the way. Those two historic events serve as bookmarks for the fall and rise of New Orleans, with the Louisiana Superdome–home to both the Saints and to thousands of New Orleanians displaced by the floods after Katrina–serving as the bridge between them. According to many of the people I spoke to who call the city home, this is the bridge, though not shown on any parade route, being celebrated and crossed by the Mardis Gras krewes from Argus to Zulu this Fat Tuesday.
Many of the New Orleanians I spoke to seem to believe that the devastation of Katrina and the triumph of the Saints has served to unify New Orleans as never before. As evidence of this, both black and white citizens of the city point to the election of Louisana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu on February 6, with 65% of the vote, as New Orleans’ first white mayor in 30 years. This is a city with a more than 65% black population and a tradition of voting along racial lines. It seems that citizens of New Orleans have traded the divisions of black and white for unification under the black and gold of their beloved Saints.
Nowhere was that more evident than during the Mardi Gras parades I’ve attended in the past several days. I attended the Bacchus parade on Sunday and the Zulu (I got a coconut!) and Rex parades on Fat Tuesday. I watched most of the Zulu and Rex parades from the stands at Gallier Hall as a guest in the box of outgoing City Councilman James Carter. If I didn’t know that there had already been a Saints victory parade (named “Lombardi Gras” by city residents after the Super Bowl’s Lombardi Trophy) in New Orleans last Tuesday, I might have thought that this was it. And there was plenty of evidence to argue that it was. Outgoing Mayor Ray Nagin, on a mic to my right in the stands at Gallier Hall and sporting a Super Bowl Champion Saints jacket, shouted “Who Dat?!” nearly as much as “Happy Mardi Gras!” as he served as the official announcer and emcee of the day’s festivities. Every parade seemed to feature Saints players, including Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees and the beloved former Saints running back Deuce McAllister, on its floats.
I know what it feels like to live in a city united beyond race, class, politics and culture–we New Yorkers saw it in the months following the 9-11 terrorist attacks. We also felt that the experience would inspire us to look beyond the things that divided us to do what was best for all New Yorkers. Has that happened? Most New Yorkers would say that the results are mixed at best. I saw and felt the same sense of unity around common interests in New Orleans, focused on the truth that the job of rebuilding the city is far from finished, especially in the poor and black areas rarely seen by visitors to the city who spend their time downtown on Canal Street and in the French Quarter.
The question that will be asked over the coming months leading to the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is this: Can a historic election and a Super Bowl team provide the inspiration, the determination, the collective will for a city to truly heal itself? Or will the euphoria and good intentions expressed and celebrated during Mardi Gras be a prelude to a letdown, a kind of hangover of disillusionment and business-as-usual in a city with major economic disparities and infrastructure challenges that were only exposed, not created, by Katrina. Not all unprecedented events become historic ones. It’s clear that New Orleanians and members of the Who Dat Nation from around the world, are hoping that, in this case, they’ll make all the difference in the world for the Crescent City.
Those who follow me on Twitter and Facebook know that I’ve been telling the Dallas Cowboys to fall back–the New Orleans Saints are now America’s Team. Now it’s time for America to step up and finish the job of rebuilding the city and completing its resurrection. The spirit of this year’s Mardi Gras celebration was that of a new day and beginning for the city of New Orleans. Days like that–like Super Bowl victories–should not be taken for granted. It’s the day after Mardi Gras. The party was great but it’s over. It’s time to get back to work.
Alfred Edmond Jr. is editor-in-chief of BlackEnterprise.com