Mr. Mardi Gras, Blaine Kern, sat in his office recently, on the phone with Africa. Kern, 78, is always busy this time of year. His company, Kern Studios, has been building Carnival floats for nearly five decades, turning fiberglass and papier-mache into magic. But this year, Kern will tell you, he's busier than ever.
''We've had calls from Japan, China -- China, can you believe it? -- Albania, Greece, and all the European countries," he said, recounting recent conversations about the status of the most important Mardi Gras this city has ever known.
As he spoke, waving his hands here and there, Kern's employees were hard at work in the warehouses that line the levee in Algiers, still making repairs to floats damaged in August by Hurricane Katrina. Some of the warehouses suffered wind and rain damage and others across the Mississippi River in the heart of New Orleans actually flooded.
But the biggest names in Mardi Gras -- Endymion, Orpheus, Rex, and Zulu -- will all be rolling in the days leading up to Fat Tuesday this week, scarred but not scuttled, smaller perhaps but still here. The parades, which began in New Orleans last weekend, have never meant more to the city in their 150-year history.
''Rex is parading with watermarks on the floats, damn it," Kern said. ''But we are parading. We're down, but we're not out."
In the worst of times, Carnival offers New Orleans a chance to reclaim what was best about itself: its spontaneity, revelry, and dance-till-dawn-to-a-brass-band mentality. It is a spiritual and financial lifeline, and an incredible marketing opportunity for a city still struggling to shake off haunting images of the dead and the displaced left in Katrina's wake.
Those images have staying power. A recent study conducted by the state revealed some saddening statistics: 34 percent of potential visitors surveyed said they are less interested in visiting Louisiana this year than they were before the storm; 20 percent said they would not visit during hurricane season; and 50 percent believe Louisiana is not worth visiting because so many attractions have been destroyed.
The devastation was widespread. Huge swaths of the city remain uninhabited -- and worse, perhaps uninhabitable. Nearly two-thirds of the city's restaurants remain closed, a third of the hotel rooms are still under renovation, and the French Quarter, once bustling with tourists, is now strangely quiet on many days.
Jackson Square, where tarot card readers once bickered with artists over space, is desolate. It's lacking clowns, caricature artists, painters, drifters, balloon dudes, and even the omnipresent silver men, those men who paint themselves and stand like statues for spare change. Everyone, said Peter Bennett, who plays the glass harmonica, has scattered, and some won't be coming back.
''I have no idea where the mimes are. No idea at all," Bennett said one recent afternoon, standing alone over his glass goblets on a mostly empty square. ''There are not any mimes left at this point."
There are also fewer horse carriage drivers, cabdrivers, and bartenders. Some bars, once open all night, must close early because of staff shortages. The Lucky Dog hot dog stands, once stationed throughout the Quarter, are missing. Ghost tours have been replaced by devastation tours and these tours are popular.
''It has to be shown, what happened, so we can get help," said Isabelle Cossart, owner of Tours by Isabelle, one of two companies shuttling tourists into empty, once-flooded neighborhoods. ''That's the purpose of the tour: to show what happened, why it happened, where it happened."
On a recent afternoon, tourists from Wisconsin, Texas, and Illinois slipped into the back of Cossart's van. ''We're going to go see the sad part now," said Collin Greenfield, from Illinois. There is plenty of it to see. Cossart's tour lasts more than three hours. But there is also a disconnect between perception and reality right now in New Orleans.
The perception is that there is nothing to do, nothing open, that the city was destroyed, and there is no reason to visit. The reality is that tourists dropped into the heart of the French Quarter, if they didn't already, probably wouldn't know anything had happened.
Locals bore the brunt of the storm. The people who lived in the neighborhoods tourists rarely saw are the ones who suffered most, lost their houses, their belongings, their jobs, and perhaps their loved ones. Now these locals, at least the ones who have returned, are looking to tourists for help. Mardi Gras is just the beginning.
''Mardi Gras is what everyone is holding on for," said David Kern, no relation to Blaine, who drives a horse carriage in Jackson Square and has watched his income plummet in recent months. ''We want crowds to come back to the city and we want people to see the French Quarter and say, 'OK -- a lot of the city's OK.' And we're hoping to send a message to the rest of the country, and the world, that we're here, we're open for business. There are places to go, places to see. It's not all devastation."
The way Sandy Shilstone figures it, the city has about six months to get that message across. Shilstone, president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., said the world's spotlight will be on the city this weekend.
The city went so far as to erect stands for reporters along parade routes, preparing for a deluge of media coverage, and Shilstone believes many reporters will be back in the coming months.
They will come for the French Quarter Festival, scheduled for April 21-23, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, scheduled for the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May, as usual. New Orleans will get attention during hurricane season, Shilstone said, and then on Aug. 29, Katrina's anniversary. ''After that," she explained with the pluck of a savvy marketer, ''we're a nonstory."
By the anniversary, the city is projected to have 181,000 residents, a 60 percent decline from the 485,000 who used to live here. No one's quite sure yet what these changes mean for New Orleans, a city that typically generates $5.5 billion a year in visitor spending. Shilstone cannot predict how many people will visit the city during Carnival and neither can the police.
''This year," said Captain Juan Quinton, a spokesman for the New Orleans police, ''we don't know what to expect."
What is clear, whether tourists are noticing or not, is that New Orleans is slowly reclaiming its soul, or at least parts of it, in pockets.
It's happening at the Maple Leaf Bar on Tuesday nights, where the Rebirth Brass Band plays to sweaty crowds and sousaphone player Phil Frazier compares the experience to church. It's happening in Blaine Kern's warehouses, where professional puppet makers are stapling flowers to floats, and it's happening even 180 miles west, in Lake Arthur.
There, Anthony and Shirley Columbo have set up shop, trying with their two daughters to finish the elaborate costumes ordered for this year's Carnival parades. The Columbos, who lived in suburban, blue-collar St. Bernard Parish and evacuated to Lake Arthur after losing everything to Katrina's floodwaters, were shocked in October to find out that plans for Mardi Gras were going forward.
''Mardi Gras?" Anthony Columbo thought at the time.
Now, knee deep in satin and velvet, ostrich feathers and rhinestones, the Columbos are happy to be busy, happy to be doing what they have done for nearly four decades, and what others couldn't wait to parade at each Mardi Gras.
On a blue-sky morning in January, thousands of people spilled into the streets of the Treme, a neighborhood just north of the French Quarter, to join a second-line parade, a unique New Orleans tradition. Dubbed the New Orleans Social & Pleasure Club All-Star Parade, it was organized to celebrate the city's renewal, and people came from as far as Dallas and Memphis to be part of it.
There was Cynthia Warner, a displaced Lower Ninth Ward resident, selling smoked sausage from the back of pickup truck, and Michael Foster with his sousaphone. There was George Quinn of the New Orleans Bayou Steppers right up front and Tamara Jackson standing at a microphone on a nearby porch.
''Y'all ready?" Jackson said.
The parade began. It headed down St. Claude Avenue to St. Philip Street, St. Philip to Rampart Street, and Rampart to St. Bernard Avenue. It marched past vacant homes and discarded boats still sitting on street corners. One man watched alone from the hole Katrina punched in the second floor of his house. One woman marching with Mardi Gras beads cried.
''I never thought we'd get to do this again," said Cassie Catalanotto, wiping tears from her eyes. ''I thought the city was under water and we'd never get our lives back."
Catalanotto danced off. The parade marched on.
By day's end, sobering headlines topped news of the celebration: Three people were shot along the route. Old scores being settled, perhaps. It was lawless. It was dangerous. By 2 p.m. that afternoon, you could feel it in the air: For better or worse, and maybe both, New Orleans was back.
Contact Keith O'Brien, a freelance writer living in Boston, at email@example.com.