Twenty-eight years of planning Mardi Gras is coming to an end for one Sheriff, as he presides over his last carnival season.
The longest serving Terrebonne Parish Sheriff, Jerry Larpenter, is hanging up his hat at the end of this term in July, making this his last Mardi Gras as Sheriff. He spoke with pride of his younger years as Sheriff during Mardi Gras, and was able to explain how the parades came to start at the Southland Mall.
“Back then it was the old bridges, and you’d come over the bridge…. they didn’t have the twin spans… In front the old hospital you had a bakery, and there was just a mass of people there,” reminisced Larpenter. “And you’d come over on the motorcycle and you had to open that crowd up, like you’re opening the sea – the Red Sea.”
In 1976, Larpenter rode his motorcycle at the front of the parade, clearing the streets for the floats trailing behind him. Back then, the parade was still on the Eastside of Houma. Larpenter said there were only about 140 officers working the route, and they worked the parades for free, because as Larpenter said, “nobody complained back then, because that’s the way it [was].”
“It’s a free show, for the public, but not for law enforcement… it’s work,” said Larpenter.
The pay for these officers has been both a point of pride for Larpenter as well as a sore subject. He said, his officers have had to cut hours during the week to allocate time to be on the parade route – which he describes as short-shifting the public. Larpenter has pursued funding for Mardi Gras persistently, and he made a point to praise Parish President Gordon Dove.
“He kept his word,” said Larpenter. “I’m glad somebody stepped up and wanted to help me.”
Parade planning, and the crowds, have changed over his 28 years as Sheriff. For one, according to Larpenter, the crowds were more dangerous when he was younger because there were many more people and they used to drink much more. Not only that, but logistics of the parade have changed to reduce the dangers of such large and cumbersome vehicles harming crowd members.
Larpenter said that to control the crowds from becoming unruly was all about having law enforcement presence in the right places. He said places like New Orleans have the State Police to assist, but in a small town like this it’s just his office and the Houma Police Department – whom he said are doing a good job.
“It’s not if it’s gonna happen… we’re going to have some incidents for Mardi Gras in the future,” said Larpenter. “I just hope it’s not to the point where somebody loses their lives.”
His planning and changes to Mardi Gras over the years has minimized these risks.
Areas which have the highest concentration of people, and the highest amounts of alcohol consumption are delegated the most number of officers. This isn’t only limited to those visible, but there are also officers in normal clothes in the crowd to collapse on situations that begin to escalate.
The route itself is also a large part of safety, said Larpenter.
Large turning areas such as, currently, at Southland Mall, Hollywood Road, and Barrow Street, are high risk areas for injury. In the past, Larpenter said, people have been run over by floats because drivers cannot see if someone is in danger.
He has planned the route to reduce the number of turns. In the past the parades were on the Eastside of Houma and the route included the old twin span bridges. He moved them to Zales, where the movie theater currently resides. From there it moved to Bayou Gardens Boulevard, but that shut down the road for too long. Larpenter eventually negotiated the beginning of the parade to be in Southland Mall’s parking lot.
“You probably got what… 5-7,000 members of Mardi Gras that shop here, it would be a nice gesture to offer it,” Larpenter said he told the mall officials.
The mall eventually agreed, he said, but he had to sign a contract that the parking lots would be immediately cleaned, and portalets would be provided.
He has also barricaded these high-risk turn areas heavily to control the flow of crowds and minimize the risk of future incidents.
This year Larpenter has taken a supervisory role in the planning and execution of the parades, to allow others to learn from experience.
He glanced at the deputy in his office with a look of surprise when asked if he looked forward to next year, when he could view the parade as a spectator rather than as Sheriff, as if the question had never been posed before.
“I’d rather not give my comment about what I plan to do about the future of Mardi Gras,” he said. “I’ve worked Mardi Gras for about 40 years here, right now it’s good to sit back and leave these young bucks lead it.”