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Let The Good Times Roll, Everywhere

This story was written By's Gina Pace

Before this year, Frederick Bell, 61, didn't know that Galveston, Texas even had Mardi Gras.

But after evacuating his East New Orleans home, Bell landed in the island community where he's remained after his house was inundated with 5-foot floods. Now he'll be participating in the Krewe Babalu parade, which rolls through Galveston on Friday night.

"Mardi Gras has been part of me all my life," said Bell, a supervisor with the Postal Service. "From the time I can remember, my mother would drag us out to parades."

Pre-Lenten carnivals across the country are set to absorb displaced residents like Bell, who want to remember tradition, as well as tourists who are shying away from a scaled-down Mardi Gras in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, that only has an estimated 200,000 residents, down from 465,000 before the storm.

For Galveston locals, it's more the merrier.

"Mardi Gras has always been large and festive, and this year a good bit of people from the New Orleans area are participating," said Gladden Walters, III, the chairman of Krewe Babalu parade. "The bigger the better."

Mobile, Ala. is also expecting a large turnout. The metro area has absorbed anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000 residents displaced by hurricanes, and visitors are coming in larger numbers too, said Harriet Sharer, the communications coordinator for the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. Hotels have been filling up faster – and farther away from the city – than usual. Mobile, which had the first Mardi Gras celebration in the United Sates in the early 1700s, is adding two more parades to the lineup and expanding another.

"People want to put on the best show ever, after the horrible destruction that Katrina caused everyone," said Stephen Toomey, the owner of the largest Mardi Gras supply store in Mobile. "Katrina put a spot light on Mardi Gras in general, in all parts of our country people are wanting to celebrate, because New Orleans has been hindered somewhat."

Lafayette Parish, an area with about 190,000 people half-way between New Orleans and Houston, gained between 15,000 and 20,000 people after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, said Gerald Breaux, the executive director of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Bureau. But they happened to settle in a place that has a Mardi Gras that draws between 300,000 and 400,000 people over five days of celebrations.

"All of those people from the New Orleans area have a knowledge of Mardi Gras," he said. "We expect those people to be out in big numbers."

Universal Orlando has added a new twist to their celebration in central Florida, by bringing down New Orleans musicians for each Saturday of their 11-week Mardi Gras. With many bars and restaurants in New Orleans not back to capacity, this gives musicians a paying gig while adding authenticity to the park's carnival, said Senior Vice President of Entertainment Jim Timon. Universal also donated $10,000 to Tipitina's Foundation, which is supporting displaced musicians.

Tipitina's helped singer and guitarist Marc Stone when he got back in town to a flooded-out house.

"They hooked me up with an instrument," said Stone, who plays roots and blues music. "I was fresh in town and didn't have anything on the books, and they arranged a gig."

"I jumped at the opportunity," said accordion player Dwayne Rubin, whose band Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers played at Universal on Feb. 18. "It's a good way for me to bring my type of music to Orlando. I haven't touched that area of the United States yet."

Rubin grew up in Louisiana, the son of Rockin' Dopsie, a Zydeco pioneer, and thought Mardi Gras only took place in the Big Easy.

"I was a small-minded person thinking it only took place in Louisiana," said Rubin, 27, who is performing in Worley, Idaho during this Mardi Gras season. "But I've played in Michigan where they celebrate it, and Panama City, Fla. – I'd never noticed how far out Mardi Gras goes in the United States."

Click here to hear a sample of Marc Stone's music.
Click here to hear a sample of Dwayne Dopsie's music.

The floats in Biloxi Miss., which has been celebrating Mardi Gras since 1908, had been submerged under 25 feet of water during Katrina, said Nancy Rogers, the executive director of the Gulf Coast Carnival Association. They are having one parade, rather than the normal two, but going on the same route, and got 17 out of their 21 floats back in working order, she said.

"Our association wanted to put it on to give something for people to look forward to," said Jerry Munro, the Capitan of Carnival in Biloxi, a city where the brunt of Katrina's powerful winds hit. "We wanted to have a celebration of some sort that life is getting back to normal. We're not going to let this storm put us down."

Munro said he expects about 50,000 revelers, a third fewer than normal, but overcoming the challenges of the last six months is reflected in their theme – "Still Standing, Still Shining."

And no matter where revelers are, Toomey thinks this year's celebration is as catharsis.

"Whenever there is tragedy that strikes, people need that outlet in their life more than ever," he said. "It's why carnival is going to be just tremendous this year."
Gina Pace

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