Mardi Gras among the ruins

Observations on New Orleans

Not for the first time in its history, New Orleans is being held together by glitter and glue. Much of the city is still in ruins, and rebuilding plans are being vehemently debated, but Mardi Gras festivities are proceeding as normally as they can - normally, that is, for New Orleans.

As frivolous as it may seem to outsiders, carnival has always been a serious matter for New Orleanians, and 2006 is being billed as the 150th anniversary of modern Mardi Gras. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, its significance could not be more profound.

The process began, in accordance with tradition, back on Twelfth Night, when Mayor Ray Nagin appeared at the inaugural press conference flanked by this year's "Rex", the titular king of carnival, and "King Zulu", figurehead for African-American carnival organisations. All present were determined to push ahead with the coming fortnight's activities despite the hardships.

Twenty-six of last year's 31 parading organisations (known as krewes) are scheduled to roll, though some parades will bear testament to the city's scars. The Krewe of Mid-City's storage warehouse was inundated by the hurricane, and they will parade with their damaged floats decked in the same blue tarpaulins that adorn many krewe members' roofs.

As Nagin announced, "It's going to be a great time for all of us to forget about Katrina, and go about the business of having a good time." Business is right: behind the united front, money is a big factor this year. In pre-Katrina times, tourism provided the city with a third of its annual running costs and carnival season was the jewel in a multibillion-dollar crown, attracting an estimated 1.4 million visitors in 2003.

Good times are now a matter of necessity. Big business has been invited to help and, for the first time, corporate sponsors will underwrite the city's carnival costs. The floats, the costumes and the beads and trinkets thrown to spectators will, as ever, be financed by the 40,000 krewe members themselves.

Bringing Rex and Zulu together beside the mayor was an evident attempt to counter the images of racial and economic division thrown up by Katrina. Yet, as it has done frequently in the past, Mardi Gras is turning a microscope on such tensions.

The "old-line krewes", as the original, 19th-century gentlemen's parading organisations are known, still represent the exclusive pinnacles of white high society and play host to each year's debutante season (for many, the real heart of Mardi Gras). Zulu, on the other hand, began parading about a century ago as a parody of its members' "courtly" pretensions: "King Zulu" wears a crown made from a lard-can and parades, with his followers, in exaggerated blackface make-up.

This year the satirical heritage is being upheld by the notorious Krewe de Vieux, taking "C'est Levee" as their theme, mocking such targets as Bush, Nagin and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and offering the moral: "Life's a breach."

The unifying carnival mask has slipped in more serious ways, as some have raised doubts about the propriety of partying in the ruins. Chief among the critics are leaders from predominantly black areas that remain uninhabitable. Cedric Richmond, chairman of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, has described this year's Mardi Gras as "the ultimate slap in the face" for his constituents.

Behind this lies a debate about what the rebuilt New Orleans will be like - and what colour it will be. Recent reports from the mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission have been controversial, suggesting that if rebuilding neighbourhoods is thought to be economically unviable they may be gone for good. Critics say this would make the dispersal of the city's population, particularly of its black citizens and its working class, permanent. Nagin himself amplified the controversy by declaring: "This city will be chocolate at the end of the day."

Arthur Hardy, publisher of the definitive guide to Mardi Gras for more than 30 years, still hopes that this year's festivities will serve as "group therapy" for New Orleanians. As the butterfly of winter dries its wings, there are, at least, two areas where general agreement can be found: the vital necessity of a better levee system before this summer's hurricane season, and the need for more federal spending.

At carnival's opening conference Nagin described the men to his left and right as representatives of the "new New Orleans". What that means remains in the balance, and Lenten times will inevitably follow Fat Tuesday. But whatever the prospects for resurrection, the city that invented the jazz funeral is set to mourn the old New Orleans in style.