They still love to party in New Orleans. It's just that lately the laughs come kind of hard. The Mardi Gras season that wraps up this week will have consisted of just eight days of parades and whatever gamy fun goes with them. In most years, it goes on for 12. Marching bands have been in short supply, their members still scattered to Houston and Atlanta. The crowds along the parade routes have been sparser too. On the bright side, that has made it easier to score the strands of colored beads flung by people on parade floats. Hustle, and you could grab 50 or so in just a few hours. Making the most of misfortune--that's a very New Orleans thing to do.
Certainly it's what many people in this still struggling city are doing. Six months after Katrina, wide stretches of town remain dead zones, testimony not only to the power of the storm but also to the failure of politicians and bureaucrats to think on their feet. In the mostly deserted Ninth Ward, where many of the city's poorest African Americans lived, Barbara Hamilton is searching for an affordable apartment while trying to find financial help to rebuild her house. "The water's not safe to drink. We don't have no lights," says the 67-year-old great-grandmother. "Everybody's talking about they're gonna do this and they're gonna do that. Instead of talking about it, do it."
But as the city crawls back to life, people will tell you that it wasn't just old neighborhoods that the wind and water dislodged. It was also old ways of thinking. "This crisis forced us to rev up our adaptability," says Carol Bebelle, director of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, which showcases African influences in New Orleans culture. "Grandmothers who had never gotten on a plane before did, just to get out of town. We've learned to accept change." In the same spirit, you keep hearing about how the storm created a clean slate to draw a new city on. New Orleans these days is full of planners, people coming up with schemes for a smarter, richer, better-organized city, all of them determined to prove that catastrophe is just another word for opportunity.
So the levees are being reconsidered, the schools reimagined, the whole region rethought, with ideas for riverfront parks, light-rail systems and everything short of whirlycopters filling the sky. Some of it may even happen. Not all the plans mesh, and most of them require dollars that may not all materialize, but in a city that has suffered like this one, the power of this wholesale reinventing is a sign of life in itself.