They are calling it Super Gras, the biggest party to hit New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and proof that the Big Easy has turned the corner on its long road to recovery.
As America prepares for its biggest sporting occasion and most watched television event of the year – the Super Bowl – the host city is juggling it with its traditional Mardi Gras carnival period, creating a “wonderful, positive, double whammy” for New Orleans. “This is a big event”, said the mayor, Mitch Landrieu. “It gives us the opportunity to show the rest of the world how incredible the people of New Orleans are and really to thank them for everything they did to help us.”
Katrina was one of the deadliest hurricanes ever to strike the US. The nation’s most costly natural disaster, it claimed the lives of 1,836 people across the Gulf Coast region and wreaked more than $80 billion (£51bn) worth of property destruction.
New Orleans also became the scene of the worst US civil engineering disaster as the system of levees meant to hold back water from Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico spectacularly failed, allowing the storm surge to pour through and submerge 80 per cent of the city and large swathes of its outlying parishes.
The August 2005 disaster was compounded by failures of leadership at local, state and federal level. The Superdome, the stadium in which the Baltimore Ravens will tomorrow face off against the San Francisco 49ers, became the “shelter of last resort” for about 15,000 residents, who remained stranded there for several days with little or no supplies. In the weeks that followed, New Orleans became a ghost city, evacuated of all but the rescue and recovery teams, media, military and National Guard.
The scars remain, with 37,500 homes still untouched by the reconstruction effort and the city’s population standing at only 74 per cent of its pre-Katrina level.
Promises by the former mayor, Ray Nagin, that he would use the recovery as an opportunity to reduce soaring crime and poverty never came to fruition. The city’s violent crime rate is twice the national average and 29 per cent of households live in poverty – statistics around the same as pre-Katrina levels.
Meanwhile, Mr Nagin has been indicted on federal corruption charges, accused of taking bribes and gifts from contractors during his office. Yet, the city also has much to celebrate. Many residential areas have been replanted with new homes, businesses have been restarted, 68 per cent of the city’s schools now meet state standards – nearly 2.5 times the pre-Katrina level.
The economic impact of the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras is estimated at about $730 million as 500,000 tourists pour in, with all 35,000 hotel rooms booked out this weekend. Mr Landrieu said: “I think we’ve seen the people of New Orleans and the metropolitan area do heroic things to get the city stood back up. You can’t put on a Super Bowl like this if you’re not clicking on all cylinders.”
He concludes: “It would be unfair to say the city’s completely back … but the people of New Orleans, I think, have shown the nation a light at the end of the tunnel and how to get there.”