Fat Tuesday

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Today is Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras. The day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. For many Christians, and especially Catholics, it is a final day of indulgence before a season of fasting and denial that is known as Lent.

It is a sad irony that a city, perhaps the city, most often associated with Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Louisiana, has endured a season of fasting and denial since Hurricane Katrina came ashore last Fall. For New Orleans, this Mardi Gras season has more in common with Easter than with former celebrations of excess and hedonism. This year New Orleans, and much of the Gulf Coast, hopes Fat Tuesday will signal the rebirth of the region.

“Six months ago, when we were pulling people out of the flood, I would have never believed we'd be doing this now,” Police officer Jonathan Carroll Jr. told the Associated Press.

If nothing else, this Mardi Gras has lifted the spirits of all those who love New Orleans. Crowds have appeared on Bourbon Street and presumably they are shopping, eating, drinking, sleeping and pumping much needed tourist dollars into the economy. But the city has racked up $120 million in debt and city officials are scrambling for another $200 million more just to pay the bills and maintain critical services, according to the Detroit Free Press. And, while sales tax revenues were higher than expected, hovering between $5 million and $6 million for the last quarter of 2005, the New York Times reports they were still only half of the $12 million to $13 million in monthly sales tax revenues collected before the hurricane.

“The city needs money. We need to attract some money to the city,” New Orleans resident Cliff Drummer told CBS News Correspondent Peter King. “Maybe if they use that money in the right areas, it'd be a good thing.”

How to use the revenues generated by this Mardi Gras celebration is only one of the questions looming over New Orleans. Debates regarding which sections of the city to rebuild, which properties to demolish and how many of the displaced residents will return, color almost any discussion of Mardi Gras.

Regardless of the outcome of those debates, or even the income from Mardi Gras 2006, the city is facing a lean Lent. The period between today and New Orleans' next big tourist event, the Jazz and Heritage Festival, scheduled for late April this year, is going to be challenging.

“We're really going to struggle this spring,” J. Stephen Perry, president of the Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the New York Times.

John Neely Kennedy, Louisiana state Treasurer agrees, telling the New York Times “We're better than we were, but we're still not well yet. Parishes, particularly New Orleans, still need help.”

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