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A Mardi Gras to Remember: Zulu Parade Under Way

Aired February 28, 2006 - 11:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome to a special Fat Tuesday edition of AMERICAN MORNING. I'm Soledad O'Brien. I'm coming to you live from the balcony of the Royal Sonesta Hotel right here on Bourbon Street, right here in the French quarter.
Hey, Miles. Good morning.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, Soledad. Have I got a treat for you. Check this out. These are the real Zulu warriors direct from Africa. The Zulu crew brought in for this special Mardi Gras parade. This is something else. These guys are the real deal. You guys glad to be here? Good to be here? They came this week.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the first time in the history that any (inaudible) been to Mardi Gras.

M. O'BRIEN: Unbelievable.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And walking barefoot.

M. O'BRIEN: Look at that. They're walking barefoot down St. Charles Avenue. You see the animal skins. Really exciting. The crowd is going nuts here, Soledad, as the Zulu parade is well under way. A little piece of history here.

They said, hey, before Katrina, they thought they'd bring Zulu warriors. They said, "Let's not let a little storm stop that." So the crowd is really responding well to this. It's a great bit of energy in this little section of S. Charles as the Zulu Crew continues its work.

And this is one of the people in charge. Are you with -- tell me about what it's like to be here in New Orleans.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's exciting. And I'm here to be with my people of New Orleans. We are the Zulus all over the world. We've got white Zulus, we've got all the nation (inaudible) the first who brought this concept. I work with South African tourism. I work with this, my friend, from South Africa.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we're doing it first -- we're doing it for all the people that's in Dallas, that's in Houston, that's in different parts around the world so that they will know they can come back to New Orleans.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. Great job, guys. Really good. Welcome to New Orleans. I'm going to send it over to you Soledad, back in the French quarter on Bourbon Street.

S. O'BRIEN: Oh, man. That looks so cool. I love those Zulu warriors. What a terrific addition. I'm so glad that they didn't let a little hurricane stop their plans.

We kind of have a different kind of show down here, less of a family scene, if you know what I mean, down below on Bourbon Street. Let's take a look. You know, you also see people making political statements as well. I'm not sure what political statement you're making when you make a chicken or a cockroach. They're next to the chickens. I don't know if you can see them.

But we have had some people dressed up as FEMA inspectors, and they've been walking around bumbling and running into things. Also, a couple of people walking with big signs and megaphones saying that, "You are sinners, "and "Sinners need to repent and stop this partying," essentially, on Bourbon Street.

I've got to tell you, no one's really heeding that message here because this thoroughfare is where -- it's not a parade, but it is a party for the pedestrians as they make their way all the way up and down the bars and the clubs and restaurants and the trinket shops. They're having a really good time.

Of course, a little bit different scene than we thought when we first started reporting early this morning where those were the folks who had been up all night partying. This is a different kind of crowd coming through. And again, we're seeing the crowd grow a little bit as the morning progresses, and we as head towards the afternoon.

It's pretty much -- so we've also had a lot of people come by and say hey to CNN as we're on the balcony of the Royal Sonesta. It's a nice thing that they say hi and we say hi back to then. We're going have much more from our vantage point up there.

Before we get to that, though, let's get right back to Carol Costello. She's got updates on what's happening in the news.

Hey, Carol. Good morning.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. I'm still trying to figure out the chickens. Maybe they're protesting the bird flu. I don't know. Thank you, Soledad.

In the headlines this morning, it may be the smoking gun in the Saddam Hussein trial. Prosecutors presented a document today. They say it was signed by Hussein and gave the OK for the execution of more than 140 Shiites. Proceedings lasted for about three hours. They'll pick up again tomorrow.

In the meantime, no end to the violence. At least 30 people were killed in a series of attacks across Baghdad.

Iraq, of course, the focus of an Oval Office meeting between President Bush and Italy's prime minister this morning. We have these new pictures of the two leaders. They met earlier. The president saying the choice is chaos or unity now for the Iraqis. The talks taking place ahead of his planned overseas trip. It'll be the first ever visit to India and Pakistan during his presidency.

A top official from the Dubai company at the center of the controversial ports deal goes before lawmakers later today. In the meantime, newly released documents suggest the Coast Guard was worried about intelligence gaps, including questions about foreign influence if that Dubai-based company took over. But the Coast Guard is now downplaying that report.

And, well, you could call it blonde ambition. Anna Nicole Smith going before the U.S. Supreme Court this morning. She's after some of her late husband's money. You might remember, she was 26 when they got married, and he was 89. The high court will try and decide whether the case should be heard on the state or federal level.

I think that busts your rule -- doesn't it Chad? -- with the age gap between married partners?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Half your age plus seven. Yes, he was way out there. Yes, she would have had to have been 52 and when that was -- whatever. That's just my rule. That's, you know -- everybody can make their own rules.


M. O'BRIEN: Thank you very much, Chad Myers.

We are on St. Charles Avenue. The Zulu parade is well under way. Check out this float, here. Ooh, look at that. That looks like a hippopotamus teddy bear. I have yet to see a golden coconut, but they should be coming out fairly shortly. Somewhere in the midst of that up there -- they don't know exactly where -- is our own Chris Lawrence. I know he's having a hard time hearing me, but, Chris, take it away.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Miles. I'm right here on St. Charles. And if you can take a look right behind me, you can see another one of the floats making its way down. Just a tremendous crowd out here. Very important time for New Orleans and the Zulu parade.

You know, a lot of people had questioned whether New Orleans should have Mardi Gras, but a lot of people we spoke to say they needed these couple days, you know, if only for a few days, to kind of come together again, see some old friends that they haven't seen, and really get back to some of the traditions of Mardi Gras.

And you can see that in full force right here. Boy, look at that float coming down. That is the Dragon's Shrek float. I hope you can still hear me. It gets pretty loud. Everybody hoping to catch one of those golden nuggets, the coconuts that Zulu is famous for. You can see them flying off every so often. There are the beads. Everybody reaching for the beads. Just a tremendous scene. There's one right there. Someone just picked up one of the coconuts. That's a pretty valued prize here on St. Charles Street.

And as you can tell, you know, the Zulu is a very integrated crew. They've never discriminated against anyone joining a crew. And people come from all over because they hear that Zulu is the fun crew, the crew that loves to have a good time.

And if this is any indication, I think we're right in the middle of one of the best parades going this New Orleans, this Mardi Gras. The parades continue to make their way through. And, yes, we were lucky enough to grab a golden nugget of our own. We'll have to bring that back, show everybody back there -- Miles?

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Chris Lawrence. You know, Soledad wants that golden coconut. Here comes another one of them -- I think Chris is about three quarters up the road from me. Just take a look at this crowd, though. Come on along the parade.

Just see -- look at everybody here, the smiles on people's faces. And as the floats come through here -- got to be careful. Got to be careful. Watch it. Watch it, watch it. Not a lot of curb space. You hear them saying, "Mister, mister, throw me something"?

You having fun here today?


M. O'BRIEN: Has it been difficult to get excited about Mardi Gras?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, it's not difficult. Just not throwing enough beads.

M. O'BRIEN: Need a lot more beads. How about you guys, you getting enough beads?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They'll have some. We're with them.

M. O'BRIEN: You're going to (inaudible)? What's it's been like?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, it's been great. I'm glad to be having Mardi Gras this year.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, it's been a tough year, to say the least.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It has been a tough year, but we're making some good changes.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, it's nice to see some smiles on people's faces. What have you got?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sometimes I feel like a nut, sometimes I don't. M. O'BRIEN: On it goes. That's a nice set there. This is your secret weapon here, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Say hey. Blow them a kiss.

M. O'BRIEN: I didn't see a lot of beads here, though. You guys have got to work on that a bit, I think. Oh, wait a minute. You've got to get that on there. One more time. Give me that one, sweetheart.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Blow them a kiss.

M. O'BRIEN: There you go. I think I just melted. All right. Making friends out here, Soledad, I guess. I hear Chris Lawrence has your golden coconut. I believe he's going to give it to you.

S. O'BRIEN: Oh, you know what? I'd even trade that golden coconut for that cute kiss that I just saw. That was great.

You know what I'm wondering, Miles? Imagine you're an evacuee from Hurricane Katrina, and you're not living anywhere near New Orleans. I mean, think of how they are all feeling as they are watching this unfold on television.

A bunch of them have ended up in Texas. Some have come back. Some have decided that they're going to stay where they are. They're not coming back. They're going to stay in Texas. Some are still waiting to decide.

Let's get right to Ed Lavandera. He's in Houston for us today. Hey, Ed. Good morning to you.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Soledad. Well, if you have look behind me here, we're in one of the arenas at Reliant Stadium. And it's the opening day of the Houston rodeo. You're probably wondering why in the world are we here on Mardi Gras Day.

Well, you know, there are tens of thousands of evacuees here. Many of them, as you say, Soledad, will not be heading back to New Orleans. So they have to figure out how to start their new lives here. And in many ways, that includes embracing their new culture.


CHRISTINE SMITH, KATRINA EVACUEE: That's pretty. Where did you get this? Oh, Betsy, thank you. How does it look?

LAVANDERA: Christine Smith is trading in Mardi Gras beads and parades for a cowboy hat and a rodeo. It's a symbol of how much her life has changed since Hurricane Katrina destroyed her Lakeview home, driving her out of New Orleans.

SMITH: Every single day is a new adventure here. It's a new life, a new beginning. It's exciting.

LAVANDERA: Smith is one of the 150,000 evacuees living in Houston. She doesn't plan to return to New Orleans, so for her, a new beginning means embracing a little Texas culture.

SMITH: I want to see the cowboys. I want to see the real cowboys. I want to, you know, see the animals. I want to see when they -- what is it? When they lassoo (ph) the cows or the bulls, whatever they do to pull them down?

LAVANDERA: Well, she meant to say "lasso the bulls," but she's still learning the ropes. We'll give her a little more time. What many evacuees did not know when they arrived in the Houston area is that the second largest Mardi Gras party in the country takes place on nearby Galveston Island.

That's helping 61-year-old Frederick Bell start over. For the first time in his life, he's not celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans. But he's starting a new tradition, joining this the Crew of Bubbaloo (ph) and riding in this float.

FREDERICK BELL, KATRINA EVACUEE: We had just as much fun on this float as we do in New Orleans.

LAVANDERA (on camera): Feeling at home?

BELL: Yes, I did. I really felt at home.

SMITH: Do you have a mirror?

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Christine Smith is already feeling at home in Houston, but even this cowgirl in the making can't completely let go of her New Orleans sense of style.

SMITH: With my high heels. I'm going to the rodeo in my high heels.

LAVANDERA (on camera): Are you going to put some Mardi Gras beads on top of that?

SMITH: I think I might. I'll have to decorate. Maybe with a purple, green and gold feather.


LAVANDERA: You know, we were struck when Frederick Bell said he felt just at home on the float that he rode in Galveston as he did as the ones he rode in New Orleans. Kind of a poignant moment for him. He did not know that they celebrated Mardi Gras in Galveston to the extent that that party is down there.

He felt very much at home, and for many of the evacuees who might be coming to this rodeo in the next couple of weeks, in many ways, their Mardi Gras experience has already prepared them for it. It smells just as bad in here as it does on Bourbon Street, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, it's kind of a zoo here on Bourbon Street. I can tell you that. Ed Lavandera for us this morning. Ed, thanks.

We're going to have much more special coverage of Mardi Gras in this extended version of AMERICAN MORNING. We're going take a serious turn and take a look at the security issues that are facing the police, even with the celebration scaled back quite a bit this year -- Miles?

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you, Soledad.

We're also going to get a little historical perspective. Obviously, a lot of tradition to talk about here in New Orleans and Mardi Gras. And this will be a Mardi Gras that history will always remember. We'll talk to somebody who knows an awful lot about all of that.

Also, you're watching at home, and you'd like to be your own directors. Check out CNN pipeline. is the place to go. Our Mardi Gras gift to you. It's free all day. Check it out.


S. O'BRIEN: You're looking at pictures of Pete Fountain's Half- Fast Walking Club (ph) as they make their way down right below us on Bourbon Street. You know, what I was saying -- that was a terrible throw. I was saying that we didn't get much of a parade. But you know what -- oh, man. These guys. No aim, no aim. All right, all right, all right.

You know, it's interesting. Kind of brings us right to why we're here. The New Orleans "Times-Picayune," the editorial headline is, "This is why." It explains why the Mardi Gras celebration is more important than ever. Compares it really to the first Fourth of July celebration after the 9/11 attacks.

Let's get right to Lolis. Thank you. Thank you. Lolis Eric Elie is a reporter with the "Times-Picayune," and he joins us. This is a standard thing, people chucking all these beads at us both up and down.

LOLIS ERIC ELIE, "TIMES PICAYUNE": People are doing target practice as well.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes. I wish they'd like kind of move the band along a little bit. In all seriousness, you've compared this in your newspaper to moving on as New York did in the wake of 9/11.

ELIE: Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: There are a lot of people who would disagree, who would say the wounds are so deep that a party is not the right way to go.

ELIE: One thing they have to understand, we spent our days gutting out our parents' houses, we spent our afternoons waiting for FEMA or the insurance man. We spent our evenings talking to friends who lost loved ones in the wake of all of this. After you've been through all of that, the idea of one or two days off to celebrate in our traditional way doesn't seem far-fetched.

S. O'BRIEN: You don't think it sends a mixed message?

ELIE: It does send a mixed message to people who don't understand the rage (ph) that we're dealing with. Trying to steal a few minutes of pleasure through the despair this has caused is only natural, and it's only appropriate.

And the other thing is that the reason people want to come back to New Orleans is not just because of their house, or because of this geography. They want to come back to the spirit of the city. This is it.

S. O'BRIEN: Is it hard -- well, the list of things that are hard. And you named a bunch. You spend the day mucking out your house and trying to figure out where you're going to get food from, et cetera. What's the number one complaint that your readership has? What's their biggest frustration?

ELIE: The uncertainty. The federal government still has not said we're going to get category five levees. They still have not talked about restoring the wetlands. And we're losing as much as 40 square miles of American territory, the Louisiana wetlands, every year.

And ultimately, it was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers levee that failed. It was not the hurricane itself. It was not the winds that destroyed New Orleans. And the government has not stepped up and said, "Yes, we acknowledge the fact that our levees failed, and therefore, we'll make you whole."

S. O'BRIEN: Earlier, we were talking to Julia Reed (ph) who was just joining us all morning, and will through the afternoon. And one of the things she said -- she was on a float and she noticed fewer black faces, frankly, staring -- she said, you know, you could see very clearly that the black population of New Orleans, a black city, is diminishing. How concerned overall are people in the city about that?

ELIE: Well, a whole lot of what makes New Orleans different from every other place in the world is the African presence here. You talk about our food, you talk about our music, you talk about our way of being in the world. A lot of that traces back to our Haitian and West African roots. And so it's crucial for this city moving forward.

But I also think that there are a fair amount of black people here despite what casual observations might indicate because this has always been a geographically integrated city. You really can't look at a neighborhood, an old neighborhood, and says it's all black or all white. It's very different from southern cities in that regard.

S. O'BRIEN: Mayoral race. This is going to be a race that everybody's watching. You know, maybe for the first time, the nation and the world watching who's going to be picked as mayor of New Orleans. What do you think?

ELIE: Well, I'll tell you, probably the most important mayor's seat in the country, maybe behind New York. And I fear that it's going to get ugly at a time when we don't need to have that kind of divisiveness in front the national spotlight.

S. O'BRIEN: Hasn't gotten ugly at yet. I had both candidates -- two of the leading candidates, I should say. The lieutenant governor, and also Mayor Ray Nagin, the current mayor, have both been very charming and delicate with each other.

But I think you're right. I think it's going to get ugly, and fast. Lolis Eric Elie, is the New Orleans' "Times-Picayune" newspaper. It's so nice to see you. Thank you so much. I hope you didn't get beaned (ph) too much with what they've been throwing up at us as the party continues right down below us.

We've been talking a little bit about the party. And of course, the party, even though it's a big one -- and you can see from some of our cameras how it's going on. The truth is it's scaled down. It's scaled down. The security is still a big concern.

Ahead this morning, we're going to talk about what exactly they've been doing to prepare and see how also it's going. A commander with the New Orleans Police Department is going to join us. We'll talk about some of the challenges the force is facing. That's just ahead. Stay with us.


M. O'BRIEN: Welcome back to a special edition of AMERICAN MORNING. I caught up with Oliver Thomas, city council president, and sometime Fred Astaire.

Oliver, good to have you with us. What's it been like walking down this street seeing these people?

OLIVER THOMAS, NEW ORLEANS CITY COUNCIL PRESIDENT: It's been great. (inaudible) the best day to start our recovery. People from all over the world told me, "We love your city." Natives came back home. People from New Orleans came by home by the thousands to come to this Mardi Gras. This is wonderful.

M. O'BRIEN: We talked a little bit about politics before the break and the mayor's race that lies ahead. What do you think? Is it going to be an ugly political scene here in the future?

THOMAS: I hope not. (inaudible)

M. O'BRIEN: Do you support the mayor?

THOMAS: I have my own race to run as council president. I'm going to sit down and evaluate every candidate and make the best decision for my city. I'll walk a mile for Miles any time.

M. O'BRIEN: (inaudible)

S. O'BRIEN: Miles, I can't hear a word you're saying. You know, I was complaining a little earlier because we don't have the floats passing by. But, look, we've got some of these half-fast walking smart (ph) to walking bands. And then we've got bands going by too. So we're getting a pretty good show here.

We're going to go down the street in a little bit. We'll also take a closer look at security and the challenges. I mean, look at the crowd. There's a lot of drinking going on, a lot of costumes, a lot of people. We're going to take a look at some of the security challenges that face the NOPD professionally today. That's ahead.

Also, to turn the corner sharply, we're going to take you to an area in Mississippi. They are in no mood to celebrate. Listen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We still have standing water in the ditches. We still have the smell of sewage in the air. We still have children and retired folks living in all this.


S. O'BRIEN: Talk about a community that feels left alone and forgotten. Contrast it to what's happening here in New Orleans. We've got their story just ahead. Stay with us. You're watching a special extended edition of AMERICAN MORNING.


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