Are changes ahead in the future of Mardi Gras?


Emma Seely, Managing Editor

This Carnival season, New Orleans experienced the usual mix of fun, revelry and enchantment, but the merriment came with a few tragedies. The city was just mourning the death of 58-year-old Geraldine Carmouche, who was crushed to death by a float in the Nyx parade, when 58-year-old Joe Sampson was struck and killed by a float in Endymion just three days later. These deaths, along with increasing concern about the waste left behind by Mardi Gras parades, have left New Orleans authorities and residents alike feeling that something has to change.


“As tragic as the accidents were, it is kind of amazing that this does not happen more often, if you see the crowds that are out there pushing and shoving against the floats,” says Inge Fink, instructor of English at UNO and rider in the Krewe of Muses. 


Although no deaths occured in Fink’s krewe, she does note that the behaviors of some parade-goers made her nervous, especially as they competed for throws, or reached for throws that had fallen. Before this year, the last float-related fatality in New Orleans came in 2008 when a rider fell off a float in Endymion and was crushed to death. Although many years have passed between that 2008 season and this one, this year’s deaths have made flaws in the current parade structure clear.


“Not all throws are designed to fly; with beads and heavier things, you can achieve great accuracy when you pitch them,” says Fink. “Softer items—plush animals, packets of napkins, and folded-up shoe bags, some of our most popular throws this year—twist and turn in mid-air and often miss the target. My heart skipped countless beats when I saw kids dive for items that had landed inches from the wheels of the float! Let it go, kid!”


After the second fatality this season, authorities required remaining parade krewes to separate any tandem floats (multiple floats pulled by one tractor) so that each individual float is pulled by its own tractor. Both deaths were related to the tandem structure, as Carmouche tripped over the hitch that separated the floats, and Sampson was killed by the third float in a line of three. 


“I think it is a good idea to uncouple the tandem floats as the tractor drivers cannot see what’s happening between the two floats,” says Fink. “There might also be some way that the floats could have some guard rails mounted on them that would, in essence, push accident victims out of the way if they fall in front of the wheel—sort of like the thing they have at the bottom front of our streetcars. These guard devices could have some kind of sensor on them that will signal to the driver whenever something or somebody pushed against them. I’m sure our Mardi Gras masters will find some way to make parades safer! All of us think that we need to do something to ensure greater safety.”


In addition to the tragic deaths, many people in New Orleans are worried about the pile-up of garbage each parade creates. Especially as environmental issues become increasingly critical, it feels important to modernize some throws in order to reflect changing global temperatures. 


“Muses has made quite an effort this year to come up with throws that have practical uses—bike bells, shoe bags, napkins, just to name a few,” says Fink. “However, the crowds want to walk home with big, rattling collars of beads around their necks. I reckon it will take a while for sustainability to make a noticeable impact. Old habits die hard.”


Whether next year’s parades mark a significant departure in terms of safety and sustainability, or if the change is more gradual, some aspects can cetainly be amended to ensure a happy, and safe, Carnival season for all. And if the long and varied history of Mardi Gras is any indicator, evolution is key to the best season possible. 


“Mardi Gras, like every other cultural institution, is in constant flux,” says Fink. “It used to be that krewes were not integrated; now they are. Maybe this year we realized that we need to implement some safety features we did not have before. Sustainability of throws is another development that has started but that needs to grow—and I’m sure it will.” 


Photo appears courtesy of Tony7000 via Flickr Creative Commons