As the Phunny Phorty Phellows kicked off the 2015 Carnival season with their traditional Twelfth Night streetcar ride down St. Charles Avenue on Tuesday night, they rolled past the massive construction that has overtaken the neutral ground of Napoleon Avenue.
The project, part of the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, has complicated traffic for years. And, with Mardi Gras approaching on Feb. 17, many have worried about how the drainage project will impact the Uptown route that now hosts nearly all of New Orleans’ major parades.
The good news: The parades will roll and the route will remain unchanged.
The bad — if unsurprising — news: “If you’re used to being on the neutral ground on Napoleon, you should start looking for another spot,” said Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, the city’s deputy mayor for public safety and homeland security.
The city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is managing the massive drainage project known as SELA, are working together to minimize disruptions to the parade schedule and plan to contain the construction zone — which now spreads into the roadway in either direction — so that floats can pass, Sneed said.
There may be minor adjustments to the staging areas for krewes, but other than the fenced-off neutral ground, most paradegoers should not notice much of a difference, he said.
“It’s always inconvenient when you do have construction, but that’s part of the process of rebuilding the city,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said after a ceremonial “Kings Day” event at Mardi Gras World celebrating the beginning of Carnival. “Of course, you know the No. 1 complaint is we need better infrastructure. Of course, now the complaint is that we have too much too fast. So we try to manage all of it, but we’ll be OK.”
Officials are still trying to determine which areas of the neutral ground might be accessible for parade viewers. Corps spokesman Rene Poche said that information should be available in the coming weeks.
While other areas of Uptown also have seen significant road and drainage work, those projects, such as work at St. Charles and Louisiana avenues, are expected to wrap up in time for the parades or else don’t affect the actual parade route.
The city used a similar plan last year when SELA, which is designed to prevent flooding from rainstorms in the area, took over the neutral ground on the lakeside of St. Charles. That area, however, is not nearly as heavily used for parades as the riverside portion of the street.
There will be other minor changes this season as well. The reviewing stands outside Gallier Hall will be moved across St. Charles to Lafayette Square because of ongoing construction to repair the historic building. At the same time, city officials are planning a concert series in the park for the Carnival season, though the exact dates and performers have not been confirmed.
As he cut king cake with officials from the Rex and Zulu organizations at Tuesday morning’s event, Landrieu praised Mardi Gras as a key part of the city’s culture.
“Everyone knows this is what we live for. This is a centuries-old celebration,” he said.
Both the krewes also officially announced their themes for the year.
Rex’s parade will be focused on “Wars That Shaped Early America.” Floats will commemorate conflicts stretching back to the colonial era and culminating with the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 — 200 years ago this week.
While Zulu’s theme, “Zulu Salutes Our Founding Fathers,” also has a colonial-sounding flair, the parade actually will celebrate the krewe’s founding in the early 1900s.
Landrieu predicted that despite some of the construction changes, there won’t be any major problems.
“Mostly, Mardi Gras does well when everyone works together, uses common sense and is civil to each other,” he said. “I think we’ll be fine as we have in past years.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.