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The tragicomedy of Mardi Gras

Editor's note: Donna Gregory is on assignment in New Orleans for MSNBC-TV.

NEW ORLEANS - Tragicomedy is the right word for it. It's the feeling of that first holiday you spend after a loved one dies. There's music, special food, celebration and sadness. Sadness for those who've been lost. Sadness for those who can't come back. And here, a sadness for the loss of innocence that comes with the realization that the party didn't last forever.

Watching the children grab beads tossed from passing carnival floats, it's easy to forget that most of the kids haven't come back.  More than half the pre-Katrina population is still gone. Few public high schools in the area are open, so the marching bands are sparse at best. Many out-of-town bands had to stay away, since there's no room at the inn for the players and chaperones.

There aren't as many parades this year, but there is a new, somber one that's drawing camera-toting crowds. It's the parade of tourists through the devastated 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish. They line up in their rented SUVs and creep along, snapping shots and cell-phoning them back home. They see for themselves why this city needs so much more help, more money, more compassion. The glitz of the carnival can't mask the tattered truth just a few blocks outside the party zone.

Yet still, they celebrate. It's part of the culture here during the best of times, and they're not letting it wash away with the floodwaters. So they suit up in their purple, green and gold armor, and battle the twin demons of doubt and despair. They rally to reclaim the city they love, and numb the pain with excess: trinkets, tackiness and all that jazz... washed down with cafe au lait and a beignet.

Really, where else would you find a costume show with designer outfits fashioned from  FEMA blue tarps? It's another symbol of "Re-New Orleans"... a brand new Mardi Gras spirit in the city where the locals will make the good times roll once again.