In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is not just Fat Tuesday itself, it's a multi-week celebration. It's also a huge mess.
The plastic beads, cups, and trinkets that fly from the floats don't all get caught — even by the most enthusiastic crowds. And after a bead has hit the ground it immediately turns from prize to garbage, especially in this year's rain and mud.
After each day's parades, street sweeper trucks and crews do their best to pick up the parade detritus — beads and other throws, beer cans, plastic bags, light-up necklaces that have lost their glow. City officials have even used the garbage tonnage they collect as a sort of carnival-success barometer.
But even with the massive cleanup operation, some trash gets left behind. And it turns out Mardi Gras is terrible for the flood-prone city's storm drains. Last month, officials announced that cleaning crews had pulled 93,000 pounds of old beads out of catch basins on the main parade route.
Dani Galloway, who runs the New Orleans Department of Public Works, calls that number "a smack in the face." So with carnival season looming, Galloway made it her mission to keep more beads from clogging up the drains.
"It was a simple as a visit to Home Depot to try to figure out what we could do that would be, obviously, low cost, a fairly quick turnaround," she says.
Galloway's department experimented with wire and two-by-fours before landing on a combination of metal grates and big orange sandbags. The bead-blockers are affectionately known as "gutter buddies."
The city spent about $30,000 on supplies and hired a contractor to make hundreds of the filter contraptions and install them in storm drains all along the parade route.
The devices are rudimentary, but they seem to be working. On a recent evening, parade-goer Willie Noveck set up his folding chair next to one of the orange gutter buddies, now a bit grimy from days of rain. Holding his boxed wine under one arm, Noveck affirmed the gutter buddies' success. "They're catching, I guess, a lot of plastic bags," he said. "They're definitely doing something!"
A simpler solution to the storm drain problem might be to just...stop throwing beads from Mardi Gras floats. But for Noveck, like many New Orleanians, that's not an option.
"Stop throwing beads?!" he shouted, incredulous. "You cannot be serious about that. That's ridiculous."
Noveck says he has a better idea: parade-goers should focus more on their fielding skills. His proposal? "Let's catch all the beads so we don't have this problem!"
For now, if the people don't catch all the beads, the gutter buddies will.