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Despite the ruins, preparations for Mardi Gras go on

NEW ORLEANS—They don't call this a party town for nothing.

Despite fetid piles of garbage, thousands homeless from flooding and the city on the brink of financial ruin, artists have begun crafting puckish icons for Mardi Gras parades four months away.

The pre-Lenten Mardi Gras celebrations here boast masquerade balls and raucous merrymaking that gain worldwide attention. And for Blaine Kern, the 78-year-old known as "Mr. Mardi Gras," a little joy is exactly what this town needs.

"Yes, there will be Mardi Gras parades!" declared Kern, whose family operates Kern Studios, a Mardi Gras assembly line.

When Kern returned from Houston, where he evacuated to get away from Hurricane Katrina, he was besieged by friends wanting to know whether the February show would go on.

"Everybody wants to do it," he said. "We are going to show the world that we are still alive and want to have fun."

The city's tourism agency, the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., says Mardi Gras will return in 2006, though with hotel space still expected to be crowded with those left homeless from Katrina and from contractors helping rebuild the city, its scope is uncertain.

In normal years, the two-week carnival draws up to a million visitors and generates about $1 billion.

Of the 300 Mardi Gras floats stored in Kern's warehouses, about 50 were damaged but salvageable. In a garage near the Superdome, water reached floats depicting a creepy, purple mosquito, a giant, a gray pig and a 12-foot voodoo doll.

Pixie Naquin, Kern Studio's vice president, said bleach and brushing should restore the intricate floats.

Nonprofit groups known as krewes—some with up to 2,500 members—hire the studio to create floats, props and stage their Mardi Gras parades.

Of Kern's 100 employees, about 40 have returned since the flood.

He's hoping more will be back soon.

Part of Kern's operation is Mardi Gras World, a place that draws thousands each year to watch artists at work, try on costumes, and view a movie about the popular celebration. On Monday, tours will resume for the first time since Katrina.

Mardi Gras World stands in stark contrast to the rest of the city, which still resembles a war zone. Polka and Disney-like tunes play. Tina McCrosky was dabbing paint on a decorative bottle as tall as she was.

"We are painting things that are bright and happy," she said. "It makes you think of happier times."

Nearby, Charles Bendzans was air-brushing a parrot. Like others, he said the Mardi Gras parades must go on. February will mark the 150th anniversary of the first formal parades in New Orleans.

"This is what we do here—have fun," he said, spraying turquoise paint on the bird. "Mardi Gras is a frame of mind."

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(Hone-McMahan reports for the Akron Beacon Journal.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-MARDIGRAS

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