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Bemidji renews sister city connection with New Orleans
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Bemidji resident Michael Meuers holds up a picture of himself taken in the 1990s when he was grand marshall of Bemidji's Mardi Gras parade. Bemidji has been a sister city with New Orleans since 1986. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, people in Bemidji are recalling a connection with New Orleans that many had long forgotten. Twenty years ago, Bemidji and New Orleans became sister cities. Bemidji residents are now looking for ways to help.

Bemidji, Minn. — Bemidji and New Orleans share the distinction of being the first and last cities on the Mississippi River. While the Big Easy may be better known for its wild Mardi Gras celebration, for a while, Bemidji had a Mardi Gras, too. In the 1980s, the bitter cold of February in Bemidji also meant spicy Cajun food, jazz music and a Mardi Gras parade through snowy downtown streets.

The connection between Bemidji and New Orleans was designed to raise awareness of pollution in the Mississippi River. An environmental group came up with the idea of promoting a clean connection from Bemidji to New Orleans. In 1986, the mayors of the two cities signed proclamations recognizing that effort and declaring themselves sister cities.

The good times rolled for more than a decade in Bemidji. But in the late 1990s, interest in the northern Mardi Gras faded. The celebration died out and was mostly forgotten. Bemidji resident Michael Meuers says it all came back to him when he saw the destruction in New Orleans on television. Meuers says he felt compelled to remind people.

What kind of got people's interest is, you've got to take care of your sister. And I think that's what's kind of grabbed people's imagination.
- Michael Meuers

"There's been a lot of new people who've moved to the community and who are completely unaware of that sister city connection, and the rest of the people had kind of forgotten over the last 10 years or it didn't occur to them," said Meuers. "It just happened to occur to me, and it kind of snowballed.

Meuers got on the phone and sent emails to hundreds of people asking them to recall the old Mardi Gras days and to figure out what Bemidji should do to help New Orleans.

"And I think that's what kind of got people's interest is, you've got to take care of your sister," Meuers said. "I think that's what's kind of grabbed people's imagination."

A few people recalled that Bemidji was given a key to the city of New Orleans. But no one was quite sure where that key was. City officials spent a day looking for it. Finally, someone thought to call Doug Peterson, Bemidji's former mayor. Peterson had the key and the official proclamation hanging in his home office. Peterson recalls making the New Orleans connection with then New Orleans mayor Ernest Morial.

"We exchanged documents by mail," said Peterson. "I sent him a key to the city of Bemidji and he sent me this key to the city of New Orleans back, which kind of put the seal on the fact that we are in fact sister cities."

The key to New Orleans is hanging once again in Bemidji's city hall. Peterson says he believes people in Bemidji will rally around the sister city idea to help people recover from the hurricane.

"As we bring that forward and people start to realize, 'Hey, that's right, we did that. We are a sister city,' the interest became more and more, and it became kind of the centerpiece for this whole program," said Peterson.

About 75 people gathered recently for a brainstorming session on what Bemidji should do to help disaster victims. There's a plan to send volunteers to New Orleans to build homes once reconstruction begins. People also want to offer shelter and services to hurricane victims who could potentially find their way to northern Minnesota.

Michael Meuers says he's pleased with the level of support.

"I'm encouraged and inspired by the fact that so many people want to help in this day of cynicism," said Meuers. "Sometimes you start wondering, you know, do people really care? Well they do. A good share of people care."

Meuers says Bemidji's biggest contribution will likely be raising cash for the relief effort. Volunteers plan to kick off a series of city-wide fundraising efforts Oct. 14 through 16.