"The worse the economy gets, the more successful Mardi Gras is," says Staci Rosenberg, a real estate attorney and Muses captain. "People view it as such a critical part of their mental health, such an integral part of their tradition. They won't let it go easily."South Louisiana residents definitely needed a drink after a tough February, when they learned that their still-reeling region wouldn't be receiving much help from the $787 billion economic stimulus package -- and that their Republican governor might leave the money on the table anyway.
And after the tourists leave and the hangovers wear off, the residents of Orleans Parish will wake up to a city that has, according to the latest New Orleans Index, 70,000 blighted or empty homes, one of many signs that the ongoing crisis of the failed Gulf recovery is still here.
President Barack Obama -- who will deliver his State of the Union Address on Fat Tuesday, the last day of Mardi Gras -- seemed to sense this disparity between hope and reality when he made a special statement last Friday decrying Washington's response to Katrina:
"The residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast who are helping rebuild are heroes who believe in their communities and they are succeeding despite the fact that they have not always received the support they deserve from the federal government," Obama said in a statement. "We must ensure that the failures of the past are never repeated."Obama made two concrete pledges: a 6-month extension of the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding, due to sunset this month; and a promise to dispatch Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan to tour the region March 5-6.
While symbolically important, both are small steps in a region that has suffered major steps backward in recent weeks. First came word that the much-hyped stimulus bill would bring Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District (which includes New Orleans) only 4,800 jobs, last among the 435 districts in the nation.
To make matters worse, rising GOP star Gov. Bobby Jindal -- eager to stay on message with fellow Republicans who vehemently opposed Obama's stimulus package -- threatened to forgo much of the federal money.
Indeed, the same day Obama was pledging renewed support to the Gulf Coast, Jindal -- who will offer the Republican response to Obama tomorrow and is often mentioned as a 2012 presidential hopeful -- stated Louisiana won't take money aimed at helping cover unemployment insurance claims on grounds it might at some point increase taxes.
Meanwhile, evidence of the need for bolder action and more resources abound. For example, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported on Friday as well that the Army Corps of Engineers is proposing to cut costs in rebuilding the city's storm defense system:
Regional levee commissioners said Thursday that they fear that the Army Corps of Engineers is running into money problems in its efforts to build better flood protection by 2011 and that to cut costs, the corps might recommend what the commissioners consider to be unacceptable projects.
Two examples they cited are floodgates that would be closed across Causeway Boulevard in Metairie and Interstate 10 in eastern New Orleans to protect against storm surges, instead of more expensive and potentially more effective forms of protection.
This week, parades and promises will carry the day. But next week, the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast may well ask: where's the money, and what's the plan?