New Orleans Louisianian said that 'we are about to get supreme contempt as a silly people, or a tender pity as madmen who know no better.'"> "Carnival and Katrina," by Reid Mitchell, Journal of American History
Through the Eye of Katrina  •  special issue, december 2007

Carnival and Katrina

Reid Mitchell

Journal of American History, 94 (Dec. 2007), 789–794.

In 1878 yellow fever hit the lower Mississippi River valley hard. The epidemic killed over thirteen thousand people from New Orleans to Memphis, Tennessee, and beyond. Over four thousand people died in New Orleans alone. Many Carnival organizations refused to celebrate, but the Krewe of Rex decided to parade. “Our friends everywhere would prefer to see us giving evidence of life and energy than to have us sitting in sack-cloth of ashes.” The krewe argued that the arrival of Rex in New Orleans would “dispel the gloom” of the epidemic and attract tourists. But the Republican newspaper the New Orleans Louisianian said that “we are about to get supreme contempt as a silly people, or a tender pity as madmen who know no better.”[1]

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Glossary: Yellow Fever More [+]

Dr. Holt's prescription for the treatment of Yellow Fever

Dr. Holt's prescription for the treatment of Yellow Fever. New Orleans, October 1, 1843.

Dr. Holt's prescription for the treatment of Yellow Fever

Dr. Holt's prescription for the treatment of Yellow Fever. New Orleans, October 1, 1843.

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During the nineteenth century, as much as one third of the population of New Orleans evacuated the city between July and October, fearing the diseases that spread during those months. Yellow fever, cholera, malaria, and smallpox were among those poorly understood and often untreatable diseases that preyed upon the city’s residents.

Major epidemics of yellow fever, nicknamed Yellow Jack and Bronze John, raged through New Orleans in 1853, 1878, and 1905. During the 1853 epidemic, an estimated eight to eleven thousand inhabitants of the city died. Many of the dead were quickly buried in shallow mass graves, and the cemeteries literally overflowed with rotting corpses, due to the heat, torrential rains, and the city’s famously high water table.

To fight the disease, the city burned “smoke pots” in the streets to combat the infectious “miasma” or foul air that nineteenth-century experts believed caused most disease. Inadvertently, the smoke did help kill mosquitoes, the source of yellow fever. It was not until the early twentieth century that scientists identified mosquitoes as the carrier of the disease and pinpointed the stagnant water in the New Orleans’s gutters, cisterns, and swamps as their breeding ground. Those discoveries allowed public health officials to effectively combat yellow fever by removing its causes and alleviating the squalid and overcrowded living conditions among the poor that contributed to the spread of the disease.

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Thread: Politics and Yellow Fever Expand thread [+]

Yellow fever epidemics plagued the city throughout the 19th century. Earlier, in 1853, a yellow fever epidemic delivered a potentially devastating blow to an image of the city that promoters had cultivated. Follow thread in McKiven, “Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1853” >

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In 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. In New Orleans, a debate over the propriety of celebrating the next Carnival season soon followed. Few if any of the debaters were likely to know that the debate itself was almost a Carnival tradition. Part of the 2005 argument was conducted along monetary lines. Would New Orleans attract more money by holding Carnival? Or would Carnival chase national sympathy and thus national money away? Just as the Krewe of Rex had in 1879, supporters of Carnival, including, sporadically, Mayor C. Ray Nagin, claimed that the celebration would bring money into the city, a city that has long relied on tourism as its major industry. City officials claimed that Carnival brings $1 billion worth of business annually. The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation argued that holding Carnival “was our opportunity to let the rest of the nation know that we are once again ready to host a special event.” The city councilwoman Jacqueline Brechtel Clarkson said, “We can’t afford to miss a beat.”[2]

Others disagreed. Some local opposition stemmed from concern about how the rest of the nation would view New Orleans’s swift revival of Carnival. Would Carnival discourage national support of the city’s recovery? A sergeant in the 205th Engineers, Louisiana National Guard, complained that the sacrifices made by his unit “while trying to rebuild the New Orleans metro area” had not been made to “show the world that Mardi Gras is back.” “What are we trying to prove?” he asked. “That despite any obstacle we can still get drunk and vomit on Bourbon Street?” He added, “Believe me, the money and support from around the country will really pour in.”[3]

Others thought Carnival too unseemly for a city that had been struck with disaster. Just before Mardi Gras, the New Orleans rabbi Edward Paul Cohn wrote, “Too little time has passed since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita for us to celebrate Mardi Gras. I believe it ought to have been canceled.” Taking note of the problems facing New Orleans, Cohn pointed to the national audience as well. “How pathetic and out of touch we will appear to those who tune in to witness this desperate and exhausting charade,” he said. “They will wonder, ‘Are these the folks who so tearfully speak of their need for national assistance? I guess they are over it now.’”[4]

Many African Americans, including New Orleanians, suspected that the city had been neglected by the administration of President George W. Bush because New Orleans had a black—and Democratic—majority. Carnival might not improve the city’s image in the eyes of the government or the American public. The president of Louisiana’s branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) said that having Carnival would send the “wrong message.” On aol Black Voices, an African American–oriented Web site, jimi izrael raised the question, “Who really benefits from Mardi Gras anyway: the people or the business establishment?” As advocates of holding Carnival emphasized its monetary returns, it was perhaps inevitable that he would frame his argument in terms of cash, not culture. izrael saw little benefit in holding Carnival “on hallowed ground.” “After all,” he said, “people died in New Orleans.”[5]

People who had stayed in New Orleans during Katrina and the flood or who had already come back tended to support holding Carnival in 2006; those New Orleanians who still lived outside of the city seemed more likely to oppose it. For example, in December 2005, Lillie Antoine, living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said, “This is not the time for fun.” She continued, “This is the time to put people’s lives back on track.” But people who had returned sometimes expressed contempt for, or anger toward, those who had not, and even for those who came back after they had, particularly those nonreturnees whom they considered able to return. Perhaps most resented were the New Orleanians who had not returned but voted in the spring 2006 mayoral elections. In the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Jarvis DeBerry wrote insightfully of the way those in New Orleans viewed those still away: “They may be sorrowful, but they’re not in a city of sorrow.”[6]

People who stayed felt superior to those who came back for Thanksgiving; they in turn felt superior to those who came back for Mardi Gras; and so on. A civic legend may be emerging: Those who stayed were heroes, whether they did anything heroic. (Some did; most did not.) And yet having left the city on account of Katrina also has a certain lesser status. (Since I returned to New Orleans from Hong Kong in July 2006, friends credit me with having fled farthest and longest.) To paraphrase an observation the historian Charles Royster made about America’s revolutionary generation, soon in New Orleans, to have stayed will be heroic; to have fled will be heroic; we will all be heroes of Hurricane Katrina.[7]

Other New Orleanians, far from home, had no objections to the 2006 Carnival. “I’m glad they’re still having Mardi Gras,” said Shannon Anicas, a New Orleanian living in Florida, “it’s what the New Orleans spirit is all about.” New Orleans with its Carnival tradition was the home to which they wished to return. Carnival has long been a source of civic identity for New Orleanians; it is one of the things that sets us apart from the rest of the United States. Carnival has also been, however, a continuing source of division and confrontation within New Orleans. Argument over the propriety of Carnival observance is itself a Carnival tradition. New Orleans’s Carnival had been pronounced dead many times before 2006. During the 1850s, it was viewed as too out of date for faster, modern times. One newspaper announced in 1854, “We are not sorry that this miserable annual exhibition is rapidly becoming extinct. It originated in a barbarous age, and is worthy of only such.” The city council passed ordinances designed to rein in traditional Carnival. During the Civil War, the holiday was observed, contrary to general impression, but it was viewed as the holiday of the disreputable. In 1879, in the wake of yellow fever, Carnival was derided by the city’s Republican newspaper. After the horrors of World War I, some suggested the Carnival spirit was gone. A Times-Picayune writer in 1920 said, “It is hardly to be expected that the tone and temper of ‘the days before the war’ will ever be renewed.” (Of course, Prohibition did its part to dampen enthusiasm, too.) In the 1960s, the United Clubs (African American social clubs) and the naacp urged a boycott of Carnival in response to Louisiana’s opposition to school desegregation. The orderly have always found Carnival out of tune with the times.[8]

The question in 2006 never really was whether to hold Mardi Gras. That decision was not in the hands of the city government, newspapers, or business people. Certainly the city could have withheld the permits necessary to hold a parade. That would have cancelled what nineteenth-century innovators called “organized Carnival.” While the spectacle of floats in parade may define Carnival for some people both inside and out of the city, Carnival itself remains a folk festival. Carnival can be celebrated simply by individuals and small groups—those people delightfully referred to in the nineteenth century as “promiscuous maskers.” The last time the city of New Orleans officially canceled Carnival parades was because of a 1979 police strike. Most tourists stayed home and no parades rolled, but the people of New Orleans still took to the streets in masks and costumes.

New Orleans had existed for more than a century when the form of Carnival it is best known for began to emerge. Carnival was a season celebrated primarily by masked balls; Mardi Gras saw promiscuous maskers and impromptu parades in the streets. In the 1850s, the Krewe of Comus began the first organized parade devoted to a single theme. Only after the Civil War did the organized parades firmly establish themselves. The krewes that marched in those parades and danced in the Carnival balls, the inventors of a new tradition, deliberately sought to replace the folk Carnival with a modern form. Those krewes tried to link Carnival and hierarchy. Carnival became the glory of New Orleans’s upper class. They also tried to separate Carnival into spectators and spectacle. In the late nineteenth century, sponsors of Carnival created a national audience of tourists and print media readers for Mardi Gras. With a new national audience, Mardi Gras—along with a notion of Creole quaintness fostered by the fiction of George Washington Cable and a notion of Creole good living represented by dances, horse racing, fine dining, and the most notorious prostitution district in the United States, Storyville—also helped develop the new industry of tourism. In 1879 the New Orleans Democrat said, “The Carnival pays New Orleans, and pays her handsomely, and for this very reason it should be sustained.”[9] Long before Carnival 2006, Carnival was praised for its cash value. But all the while, the organized Carnival flourished alongside the older folk Carnival; on Mardi Gras a celebrant could equally well view a parade as a spectator and dance, drink, and stroll the streets in costume as a participant.

There is a third vision of Carnival, which has been grafted onto the folk form and unfortunately identifies Carnival for many people outside New Orleans. Sometimes the third form of Carnival is what brings people to New Orleans. The current Bourbon Street scene, with men shouting “show us your tits” and taping Girls Gone Wild videos, certainly originates in the bars and strip joints that have been on that street since the 1950s. But that scene could only come to Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras itself after the krewes stopped parading in the French Quarter. That scene is a pure product of America and can be found in whatever city suffers the annual invasion of college students on spring break.

The Girls Gone Wild–type antics probably cannot be canceled; if they define Mardi Gras, then there is a mini–Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street every night. The most lavish Carnival parades might have been canceled in 2006; and that perhaps might have kept out-of-towners away from New Orleans. But the folk festival would have continued. “We’re having Mardi Gras and that’s final,” wrote the New Orleanian columnist Chris Rose in December 2005. “Let the whole damn country hear Al Johnson yelling, ‘It’s Carnival Time’ and let them know we’re not dead and if we are dying, we’re going to pretend like we’re not.”[10] If enough New Orleanians followed Carnival tradition and took to the streets—as they did—there would be Carnival 2006.

Gilbert R. Buras Jr. dressed as “Brownie”

The New Orleanian Gilbert R. Buras Jr. dressed as “Brownie” to embody George W. Bush’s nickname for Michael Brown, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (fema) director during Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Karen Conaway. Courtesy Karen Conaway.

Gilbert R. Buras Jr. dressed as “Brownie”

The New Orleanian Gilbert R. Buras Jr. dressed as “Brownie” to embody George W. Bush’s nickname for Michael Brown, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (fema) director during Hurricane Katrina. Shown here in a brown skirt and with a brown-smudged nose, Buras and other male Brownies paraded during Mardi Gras 2006 to satirize Brown’s response to the hurricane. Photo by Karen Conaway. Courtesy Karen Conaway.

And they did so not simply as a relief from days and weeks of misery in post-Katrina New Orleans and not simply because of some local joie de vivre. Historically, Carnival provides an opportunity for self-expression, group identity, and satire. During the pre-Carnival debate, the New Orleans Gambit Weekly identified the tradition that made Mardi Gras necessary for New Orleans in 2006: “New Orleans’ Mardi Gras has long been a platform for sending messages.”[11] For Carnival 2006, a huge target presented itself to revelers: incompetence at every level of government. Surely this was the time to pay homage to the Lord of Misrule and the forces of disorder. Some of the displays may have been in bad taste, but bad taste was a mild enough reaction to such failures, both massive and petty. One man dressed as a giant fleur-de-lis with a screw stuck through it. The Krewe du Vieux, one of the newer and most satiric organizations, chose a Katrina theme; as they paraded, they handed out phony Federal Emergency Management Agency (fema) checks. Another parade had one float with a banner pleading to the president of France, “Buy us back, Chirac.” The Mid-City parade recycled an old float depicting the character from the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to mock the mayor’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech proclaiming that New Orleans would become a “chocolate city” again. On Mardi Gras itself, “levee inspectors” wore sunglasses and carried canes. A troop of male Brownies marched, accompanied by a woman portraying “a stiff Margarita”—a reference to the former fema director Michael Brown’s notorious e-mail sent during the Katrina crisis expressing his hope for just that drink. Other costumers dressed as United Parcel Service (ups) deliverymen wearing the slogan “What Did Brown Do For You Today?”. Mayor Nagin, on horseback, played Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré, the army officer in charge of military relief for areas hit by Katrina. Since Carnival masking allows people to express their secret hopes and desires, Nagin’s choice to portray the one person he believed really got anything done for New Orleans during Katrina may reveal more than the mayor knew.[12]

Thus, observing Carnival hardly meant forgetting Katrina. Instead, this particular Carnival memorialized Katrina. With the characteristically derisive, cynical, and fatalistic voice of New Orleans, Carnival spoke for the people who suffered Katrina and its aftermath. While satire prevailed, occasionally participants struck a deeper note. The Krewe of Muses closed their parade with a float called Mnemosyne which displayed a banner stating, “We celebrate life, we mourn the past, we shall never forget.” The float, named for the Greek goddess of memory, carried no riders. The dead were not forgotten. “Partying on hallowed ground,” izrael to the contrary, remains an old New Orleans tradition.[13] The New Orleans community used Carnival to explain the disaster of Hurricane Katrina to itself. Doing so, it revealed two of its characteristic ways of thinking. First, the satire was directed at politicians and bureaucrats, as if the flood and the sluggish response was primarily the result of individuals. Levee inspectors failed; Brown failed; and fema failed. Politicians are corrupt, and bureaucrats are lazy. New Orleanians have long been cynical about people in government—which has led, ironically enough, to widespread tolerance of corruption and inefficiency. In the New Orleans way of thinking, all politicians and bureaucrats are unreliable, so what is the point of replacing one with another?

A second characteristic New Orleans way of thinking is linked to the first. Mardi Gras provides a chance to mock and even to grieve, but it hardly provides a forum to discuss solutions. New Orleanians tend toward fatalism; problems are to be endured, not solved. Living with sporadic yellow fever epidemics and hurricanes, the people of New Orleans developed a fatalistic attitude early in their history: “You only live but once, and when you’re dead, you’re done.” Snatched into the American Union without consultation nor consent, they faced—and mastered—a political mechanism imposed on them by new rulers who had ample contempt for them. But they knew that ultimate decisions were made for them in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Paris, France; Madrid, Spain; and Washington, D.C. Even the levees designed to protect the city are not under the control of the city. New Orleans’s famed love of music, food, drink, and pleasure is rooted, not in optimism, but in this very fatalism. Nothing about Katrina, the flood, or the subsequent response is likely to challenge this way of thinking.

Mardi Gras does not ignore reality; it comments on it. Mardi Gras is one of the ways we New Orleanians talk about the world. Carnival, if only in its folk form, inevitably returned after Katrina. When could it have been more necessary? Mardi Gras was how we talked about Katrina. It was also one of the ways we announced, to each other and to the rest of you, “We’re still here.”[14]

Reid Mitchell lives in New Orleans. In 2006, Stacy Parker Aab interviewed him for her oral history project “The Katrina Experience.” Thus, he has graduated from historian to primary source. He thanks Karen T. Leathem as well as JAH editors and readers for their comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

[1] J. Curtis Waldo, History of the Carnival in New Orleans from 1857 to 1882 (New Orleans, 1882); New Orleans Times, Jan. 15, 1879; New Orleans Louisianian, Jan. 11, Feb. 15, 1879. See also Reid Mitchell, All on a Mardi Gras Day: Episodes in the History of New Orleans Carnival (Cambridge, Mass., 1995).

[2] Jere Longman, “Mardi Gras Will Help Heal New Orleans, but Some Worry about Tone,” Nashville Tennessean, Nov. 27, 2005, p. 18A; Rebecca Mowbray, “This Year’s Mardi Gras Is N.O.’s Proving Ground,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, Feb. 23, 2006, pp. A1, A5; “Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler, Encore! Mardi Gras to Resume in February, Organizers Say, but Specifics Not Certain,”, Oct. 12, 2005,

[3] Eric Niemand, “Mardi Gras Is Not a Priority,” New Orleans Times-Picayune/States-Item, Dec. 5, 2005, p. D4.

[4] Edward Paul Cohn, “Too Soon to Party,” ibid., Feb. 23, 2006, p. D7.

[5] Cain Burdeau, “Katrina Refugees Say It’s No Time to Party for Mardi Gras,” San Diego Daily Transcript, Dec. 13, 2005, available at Lexis-Nexis; jimi izrael, “This Is No Time for Mardi Gras!,” March 3, 2006, aol Black Voices,

[6] Burdeau, “Katrina Refugees Say It’s No Time to Party for Mardi Gras”; Jarvis DeBerry, “Love, Here and There,” New Orleans Times-Picayune/States-Item, Dec. 13, 2005, p. D1.

[7] Charles Royster, “‘The Nature of Treason’: Revolutionary Virtue and American Reactions to Benedict Arnold,” William and Mary Quarterly, 36 (April 1979), 163–93.

[8] Shannon Anicas, “My Mardi Gras: Carnival in Their Own Words,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, living section, Feb. 23, 2006, p. 1; New Orleans Bee, March 1, 1854. For the 1920 newspaper citation, see Mitchell, All on a Mardi Gras Day, 167.

[9]New Orleans Democrat, Feb. 25, 1879, p. C1.

[10] Chris Rose, “We’re Having Mardi Gras and That’s Final,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, Dec. 13, 2005, pp. C1, C3.

[11] “Why Mardi Gras Matters,” New Orleans Gambit Weekly, Jan. 17, 2006, p. 7.

[12] Kimberly Marshall, “Krewe du Vieux 2006 Floats,” Flickr, Feb. 10, 2006,; Michelle Roberts, “Mardi Gras Revelers Find Solace in Satire,” USA Today, Feb. 12, 2006,; “Rolling with the Punches,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 1, 2006, pp. A1, A8; Angus Lind, “We Want to Be in That Number,” ibid., March 3, 2006, pp. C1, C2; Mary Foster, “New Orleans Turns Out for Mardi Gras,” Sacramento Union, Feb. 28, 2006,; Elisabeth Buurma interview by Reid Mitchell, Aug. 1, 2006, notes (in Reid Mitchell’s possession); Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (New York, 1964); Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, dir. Mel Stuart (Wolper Productions, 1971).

[13] “Narrative,” 2006, Krewe of Muses,

[14] See Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” in The Interpretation of Cultures, by Clifford Geertz (New York, 1973), 412–53.