Biloxi celebrates 100 years of Mardi Gras parades

Published 11:56 pm Saturday, February 2, 2008

It’s the third Mardi Gras since Hurricane Katrina slammed into Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, but a rounder number will be on the minds of many as the parade rolls through town on Fat Tuesday.

The local carnival association has been sponsoring parades in Biloxi since 1908, a 100-year tradition that has made Biloxi’s annual celebration a popular, family-friendly alternative to the bawdy revelry in New Orleans.

But the party in Biloxi started years before that centennial mark.

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Local historian Murella Powell said Biloxi’s earliest Mardi Gras celebration dates back to at least 1888, while a procession of 13 horse-drawn carriages highlighted its first organized parade in 1892. They weren’t an annual event until 1908, however, Powell said.

“Mardi Gras is evolving all the time, and unfortunately we’re losing some of the old customs,” Powell said. “It used to be you couldn’t get on a float unless you were costumed and masked. Now, anybody in a T-shirt can get on float, jump around and have a good time.”

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing for a city on a slow road to recovery from Katrina. The casino industry is booming, fueling the coast’s economic recovery, but progress is tempered by soaring insurance rates and a shortage of affordable housing.

While the crowds are smaller than they were before the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane, the parade provides a welcome diversion for storm-weary residents.

That’s especially true for Doug Blom, who is in charge of maintaining floats for the Gulf Coast Carnival Association.

Blom, 64, owns a sign-making business that struggled after Katrina scattered his customers. He filled the gap in his time and income by restoring the fleet of floats destroyed by Katrina.

Only 10 of 22 floats could be salvaged after the storm. Blom and his crew have replaced what Katrina ruined and now have 23 floats ready to roll on Fat Tuesday. The carnival association also built a new warehouse for the floats, replacing a structure washed away by storm surge.

“We’re back to our pre-Katrina days,” Blom said recently as his son-in-law and a friend climbed ladders to build a roof for a new float.

Blom started working on the floats in 1983 and only has missed two years since then.

“I really enjoy seeing them go down the road,” he said. “It’s not as much fun watching somebody else’s.”

Biloxi had three parades during Carnival season before Katrina, but only one has rolled through downtown each year since the storm. Around 65,000 people lined the route last year, down from the roughly 150,000 who attended Biloxi parades before the storm.

“We’re still very much in the Mardi Gras spirit,” said Nancy Rogers, executive director of the carnival association.

Powell said Mardi Gras in Biloxi has survived wartime interruptions and other devastating storms. In spite of Katrina’s devastation, she expects the celebration to keep growing in the years to come.

“It’s going to come back,” she said. “Mardi Gras is not going to ever die.”