Recurring dispatches from Benjamin Morris covering New Orleans Mardi Gras, 2011:
If there’s one lesson we know well here in New Orleans, it’s that none of us are immune to the elements.
It’s only a matter of time before a shadow passes over and reminds us of the water, water, everywhere: above us in the clouds, below us in the soil, around us in the Gulf and in the lakes, through us in the River, and within us in our bodies, water-born and water-fueled creatures that we are. Nor are our institutions immune, either, as we’ve seen in the past few days.
We felt it coming as the week drew to a close. Up by the river on Thursday afternoon, in Audubon Park, a few loose couples sat having a late picnic on the grass, watching the barges float silently past. (Further downriver, in the French Quarter, if you stand on the sidewalk by the carriage-tour guides in Jackson Square, the levee wall makes it appear as though the cargo containers are sailing past above your head.) A short stroll there to return a few seashells that I had borrowed, and even in that half-hour the temperature had dropped, the pressure had risen, and the picnickers had departed. Even the river’s current seemed to pick up a little chop, slapping the wooden pylons of the loading platforms.
Though Thursday we were spared—Muses rolled that night without a hitch—those ripples began to reach the shore on Friday, when the forecast began to take shape. By the afternoon showers and thunderstorms were slated for the weekend, and the three main parades on Friday night—Hermes, d’Etat, and Morpheus—had all been pushed up in case the bottom fell out. Rare indeed is the Mardi Gras season when we’re blessed with perfect weather all week long, but the threat of lightning over a two-day period featuring six major parades is another matter entirely—it requires a flurry of decisions between Krewe members, float captains, city officials, and police and fire details in order to prepare for any changes.
So knowing that our time on Friday might be cut short, we commandeered a couple of kids and sauntered on down to the route. By the time we’d returned home a few hours later—netting five pounds of beads, at least a dozen stuffed animals, footballs, plastic swords and sabres, skull-and-bones pendants from the gorgeously macabre d’Etat, and a stuffed alligator the size of my four-year-old nephew handed down to us by the Queen of Morpheus herself as we trotted along her float, reminding us all, ladies and gentlemen, Romans and countrymen, that in Mardi Gras as in life you have to play to your strengths, and where you do not have any yourself you have to go and get some—Iris and Tucks the next morning had been switched, and Endymion had been rescheduled for Sunday, its route changed from its traditional Mid-City to Uptown.
The clouds teased us once or twice on Saturday morning, letting loose a little shower here and there, prompting Krewe members who had a feeling what was coming to jettison the cargo of their throws. When the rain finally did begin to fall—around mid-day, after Tucks had rolled, and just as Iris was reaching the halfway point—it was as though some celestial hand had reached down from the heavens, scooped up Lake Pontchartrain in its palm, and dumped it, wholesale, upon the city. Within minutes visibility had dropped with the temperature, lightning began to spear the horizon, the streets had emptied of people, and the floats sped off down St Charles Avenue to their hangar. A friend of mine in Tucks told me later that night that as soon as the call had come through, his captain had ordered everyone off the float military-style, regardless of any belongings or throws left behind: safety was the highest priority across the city.
We got many of the refugees at the bar, where we stood inside the large bay window facing the Avenue and watched the street begin to flood. The river that swiftly formed took with it all the debris of the parades: broken beads, stray cups, loose Frisbees that no one had caught, plastic wrappers nestled around bottles and cans of beer, bits of unidentifiable paper, abandoned stuffed animals waterlogged in the murky, churning stream. The rolls of toilet paper that Tucks famously throws, once a garland upon the trees like the strings of beads, now hung in miserable, rotting strips before falling away into clumps and disintegrating. Within half an hour the river had become a second lake as the drains began to clog, and each city block became a minor island. “Do you think they’ll try to cross the moat?” The head chef came out of the kitchen and asked me, pointing at a handful of our patrons stranded at the gas station across the street.
With nowhere to go and nothing to do, the only course of action was have a drink and wait for the worst to pass. Admirably, within an hour or so of the downpour’s ceasing, the drainage situation (always uncertain on Uptown streets) rapidly improved: the lake became a river, the river a stream, the stream a puddle, and though sprinkles still peppered us from time to time, the traffic of people and cars resumed. But the rain had not yet finished taking its toll: when the cleaning vehicles came down the Avenue to collect the debris, it had so clotted in places along the street that it began to foul their internal rotors. One machine that paused in front of me on the patio was so clogged that it took a team of four men to disentangle the knot of amassed beads, shifting back and forth into forward and reverse, raising and lowering the sweepers on the unit, the brightly colored beads gleaming against the grimy black underbody of the machine.
It’s now Sunday morning as I write this and the sky is high and dry and white. By afternoon it should have cleared, after the Krewes of Okeanos and Mid-City and Thoth. Endymion, with over two thousand members, will now roll after Bacchus later tonight, right in front of the bar. The rowdiest parade in Mardi Gras followed by the largest in its history: there’s no telling what to expect. Last night, the closed-captioning system on WWL-TV reported that “the downpour this afternoon blooded the streets of New Orleans.” I didn’t make it to church this morning, but I’ll be praying all day nonetheless that the typo remains just that.