T he divorce rate among couples who lose a child is higher than average.

People grieve at different speeds, in different ways. There is a recognizable and universal rhythm of grief, but each dance of loss is as individual and complex as a snowflake. Grief is a solo performance.

This region that was rocked by Katrina is grieving, each person in his or her own style. And the bickering began the day after the storm.

One loud debate right now is whether or not to have a Mardi Gras celebration. Those who favor going ahead with New Orleans' most famous and raucous party rationalize it as a step back toward "normalcy."

How will the Big Easy re-emerge as a tourist magnet without its strongest draw?

Then there are those who insist -- with righteous passion -- it's just not the time to worry about or spend money on such frivolities. So many are homeless, or, worse, not home. Mardi Gras can wait.

Mardi Gras is today's topic. But the arguments over post-Katrina priorities are as much a part of conversation Down Here as the weather.

"Can the Restaurants Save Us?" asked a headline in the New Orleans' newspaper. The story made a case that "resourceful chefs determined to remind us why this place is worth fighting for" got back to business before schools, insurance companies or FEMA.

"New Orleans began tasting like its old self well before some areas ever started to look it," the story said. There were long lines to dine.

Some say it is not so much a matter of fine dining as a reason for being. Without at least a few of its 3,000-plus food establishments reopened, New Orleans might as well surrender to fate.

At least that's one of a million ways of looking at it.

I'm not sure who inhabits the moral high ground on Mardi Gras and institutionalized merriment. It seems more a matter of how Mardi Gras can happen than if it should.

The city has only recently decided what company will remove all the abandoned cars that litter the streets. It's hard to imagine floats and bead-grabbing throngs hot on the heels of tow trucks.

But this is New Orleans we are talking about, not New Haven. It's testament to how distinctive and special New Orleans is that this debate rages at all. In no other American city would Carnival define normalcy.

The city is built on the backs of pralines and parades, not steel mills or car factories. Tourist dollars are not just important, but essential.

A university study in 1978 estimated Mardi Gras generated $23 million for the city. In the 1990s, the economic impact reached the billion-dollar mark.

The first documented parade was in 1837, when costumed revelers walked in the streets. People complained of violent behavior and called for an end to Mardi Gras. It didn't happen.

Past Mardi Gras celebrations have been threatened by float fires, snipers, police strikes and even snow. But there's never been a hurdle to clear like Katrina.

Life goes on, in all its disguises. People eat, drink and try their best to be merry.

Already there are entrepreneurs conducting disaster tours of New Orleans, a sad twist to an old industry.

Katrina has recast life, including all of its celebrations. Over New Year's, one civic concern was the fire hazard posed by fireworks igniting blue roofs. Not a typical problem, but a real one in this Weird New Orleans' New World.

The "city that care forgot" has never been quite as carefree as its reputation. Like a reveler, New Orleans sometimes wore a beautiful mask to help hide poverty, crime and all kinds of workaday problems.

Sanctioned or not, grand or pathetic, right or wrong, Mardi Gras will roll ... .

Rheta Grimsley Johnson writes for King Features Syndicate.

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