NEW ORLEANS—A number of Hurricane Katrina refugees stuck in hotel rooms and unfamiliar surroundings across the United States are in no mood to party and they're decrying this city's plans to hold Mardi Gras celebrations in two months.
"This is not the time for fun, this is the time to put people's lives back on track," said Lillie Antoine, a 51-year-old refugee stuck in Tulsa, Okla.
Hurricane Katrina's cultural and economic wrecking ball came on the eve of what promised to be one of the most exuberant parties in this party city's history — the 150th anniversary of Carnival parades in New Orleans.
Carnival is shaping up to be an oddity. The cash-strapped city is seeking corporate sponsors for the first time to pay for police overtime and the time-consuming cleanup along parade routes and the French Quarter. Also, the two-week Carnival season — which climaxes on Fat Tuesday, the day before the Lenten season — was scaled back to eight days.
And now the city's Carnival cheerleaders are coming under fire from refugees and Black organizations for being insensitive to the plight of so many displaced New Orleanians.
"I just think it sends the wrong message to have a celebration when people are not back in their houses," said Ernest Johnson, the Louisiana president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The turmoil over Carnival was sparked last Saturday at a town hall meeting in Atlanta when Mayor Ray Nagin came under fire by an angry and raucous crowd of refugees for approving to hold Mardi Gras.
Nagin then told the crowd that he had actually opposed celebrating Mardi Gras but that tourism leaders forced his hand and got their way.
His comments stunned Carnival supporters back in New Orleans, who said they had been assured by Nagin that he was unequivocally in favor of going forward with the festivities.
"He's like John Kerry — he was for it and then he was against it," bemoaned Ed Muniz, the captain of Endymion, one of the city's biggest and most glamorous parades.
Ernest Collins, the city's arts and entertainment director, said the mayor made his Atlanta comments "in the heat of the moment" and that Nagin knows how important the celebration is.
But three days after the Atlanta town hall meeting, Nagin jabbed at the Carnival supporters again by suggesting that the hotels put aside about a quarter of their profits to help build housing for refugees.
Hotel and tourism industry leaders were flabbergasted by that suggestion, and spoke out at Nagin for his "politicizing" of Mardi Gras.
"The reality is that the right message is not getting out to America," said J. Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Mardi Gras is far more than a party, it's a celebration of who we are."
Perry charged that Nagin had not done enough to market Mardi Gras as pivotal to the revitalization of the city and its economy.
Johnson, the state NAACP president, dismissed that argument.
Hotel and tourism businesses, he said, are "only interested in lining their own pockets." He added that he would support Mardi Gras only if the hotels "go out and dedicate 100 percent of their proceeds to rebuilding their community."
Darrius Gray, the head of the Greater New Orleans & Lodging Association, said that "profits are hard to come by these days" for hotels and that many hotels have spent large sums on repairing damage to their facilities.
Arthur Hardy, a Mardi Gras historian who publishes a popular guide to Carnival each year, said celebrating the holiday would be good not just for the economy but also for the mental state of the city's residents.
"We need it for our psyche, it's like group therapy," he said. "We've likened this to a jazz funeral, we mourn on the way there and rejoice on the way back. We've got to start rejoicing!"
The dispute over whether Mardi Gras should take place has also brought out racial tensions, which have a history of hanging over Mardi Gras. In 1992, a city ordinance had to be passed to ensure that Carnival krewes, the private organizations that hold parades, did not discriminate by keeping Blacks out of their ranks.
By the time Mardi Gras rolls around — Feb. 28 next year — a great portion of the city's Black population will likely remain in limbo because their neighborhoods were flooded. It will be hard to party on Mardi Gras far from home.
ChiQuita Simms, a refugee in Atlanta and publicist who's organizing a protest on Monday against Mardi Gras, charged that Blacks are only being welcomed back to the city so they can take up low-paying jobs.
"You left (Blacks) in the Superdome for four, five days, and you want them to come up and clean up your mess?" she said. "I just think it's insensitive."
Muniz, the Endymion captain, said New Orleans is no longer a city where racism is rampant.
"When someone makes the statement that Mardi Gras is for White people, that sticks a knife into my heart," he said. "Our city has come a long way in the last 30 years."
What upsets Antoine, the refugee stuck in Tulsa, is the thought of missing the Mardi Gras party that she — like so many New Orleanians — loves so much.
"Right now I am so devastated, I am depressed, I have lost everything, my house, everything," said Antoine, who had a housekeeper's job at Charity Hospital before the storm. "It's snowing, freezing out there. This ain't for me ... I want to go home."
Asked if she would celebrate Mardi Gras if she were back in New Orleans by Feb. 28, she said she probably would.
And she vowed: "I'll be back by then, baby."
Even, she said, if that means sleeping on the street.
— The Associated Press