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A Welcome Respite 

Just as Lent follows Carnival, New Orleans must now continue to show the world what we're made of.

Seven weeks ago in this space, we pled the case for holding Mardi Gras despite the devastation of Hurricane Katrina: "This year, Mardi Gras is about our city's soul, and our cultural and spiritual revival as a community. ... It is how we heal, how we deal with whatever life throws at us. Now more than ever, we need to show the world that we are healing, and that we will not let tragedy take our soul, destroy our culture, or break our spirit." As the cleanup crews scrape together the last heaps of refuse from one of the greatest Mardi Gras ever, we are happy to report that we were right. This year, Mardi Gras really mattered -- and best of all, the world took notice. News crews from all over the planet descended upon the city, making this year's Carnival celebration the most intensely scrutinized in history. And New Orleans rose to the occasion, presenting a series of parades that went off without major hitches, and hosting large crowds without major incident.

We congratulate the men and women of the New Orleans Police Department, the sanitation workers, the parade planners and organizers, and above all the rank-and-file New Orleanians who made countless sacrifices in the spirit of celebration and hospitality -- the two main ingredients of any successful Mardi Gras. "This Mardi Gras is a symbol that we're on our way back," proclaimed a jubilant Mayor Ray Nagin. "We need the psychological boost more than anything else." We agree.

New Orleans took a great risk in proceeding with Mardi Gras this year, just six months to the day after Hurricane Katrina devastated so many communities. Many wondered how our city could take time out to party in the midst of so much misery and devastation. Of course, for New Orleanians, the answer was simple. Mardi Gras to us is so much more than a party. It's the source of our equilibrium. It's the cultivated insanity that maintains our mental balance and nourishes our soul. From the tradition and spirituality of the Mardi Gras Indians to the biting parodies of satirical krewes like Muses, Le Krewe d'état and Chaos, Mardi Gras is as central to our culture as the giant Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza is to the psyche of New Yorkers. It's our touchstone. And this year, it was threatened like never before, yet we pulled it off.

The empirical evidence of this year's Carnival success is overwhelming. Crowds were only slightly smaller, but arrests were way down. By 5 p.m. on Mardi Gras last year, police in New Orleans has arrested 1,600 people in the French Quarter alone for various Carnival-related offenses. By the same time this year, NOPD had made just 450 arrests citywide. Clearly, people had just as much fun as ever, but we knew where to draw the line. Restraint in the midst of citywide revelry -- what better capstone to the first Mardi Gras after the nation's largest natural disaster?

But now the celebration is over, and it's time to get back to work.

Mardi Gras was a welcome respite, but just as Lent follows Carnival, New Orleans must now continue to show the world what we're made of. We came together as a community to show our determination to keep our spirits high, but now it's time to put that determination to the real test as we face some monumental decisions about our city's future. Three areas need to be addressed very soon:

• The mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission has proposed a comprehensive recovery plan. Our city leaders must bring this plan up for discussion and a vote quickly -- but provide citizens time to address each major aspect of the plan. New Orleans has waited long enough for a recovery plan; it's time to adopt one and send it to Baton Rouge and Washington.

• We're going to elect a mayor and a City Council, along with assessors, clerks and other parochial officials between now and May 20. We must approach these elections with a greater sense of seriousness and urgency than ever before. Demand that candidates take specific stands on the recovery plan; make them articulate their visions for New Orleans. Above all, let's reject candidates who seek to divide us along the lines of race and class.

• Our Legislature goes back into regular session in three weeks. Much remains to be done in the work of recovery. Governmental reforms and consolidations remain on the front burner, and now legislators have the time they said they needed last month to think the plans through. Let's get on with it.

It would be nice if we could just rest on the laurels of a successful Mardi Gras, but too much work remains to be done. We proved to the world that we know how to come together to nurture our soul and rejuvenate our spirit. Now let's stay together to show everyone that we can rebuild our city -- and make it an even greater place for the world to visit next Mardi Gras.

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