This July 4, ready to party - at last

Three days before the Fourth of July, Vickey Cavitt is still trying to get final approval for her town's fireworks show. She's had her mug shot taken at the sheriff's office; been fingerprinted by the FBI; and submitted a handful of forms to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

It's all part of the new regulations imposed by the Department of Homeland Security for July 4 celebrations - and it's causing quite a bit of frustration and angst among communities struggling to meet all the demands.

But organizers such as Ms. Cavitt are pushing ahead because America is - finally - in the mood to party. Maybe it's the victory in Iraq, or a sign of the safety Americans are beginning to feel since Sept. 11. Maybe it's an outlet from the sour economy, or simply that it's three-day weekend.

But one thing seems certain: In the delicate balance between the urge to celebrate and the desire for safety that has existed since Sept. 11, Americans are now tilting more toward exuberance. July 4 this year seems set to be a bottle-rocket moment.

"There's a renewed spirit of patriotism," says Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association in Bethesda, Md.

"Maybe a few communities opted out for budgetary reasons or weren't able to get the required permits, but I think we are in for a pretty grand Fourth of July," Ms. Heckman adds.

But it hasn't been an easy road so far. In another effort to deter terrorism, a federal law went into effect May 24 requiring anyone buying, selling, or handling commercial fireworks to have a permit from the ATF, as well as a background check from the FBI.

That caused a glut of applications at local ATF offices, and federal officials are still wading through them. Those who applied later than mid-June will probably lose out. In addition, heavy rains in China and the SARS threat delayed fireworks shipments to the US, and the new ATF rules caused a transportation embargo by railways that refused to seek permits for all their employees.

That caused major problems for fireworks distributors. Atlas Enterprises, in Fort Worth, Texas, for example, had to hire truckers to haul its freight - doubling the transportation cost and adding to this year's inconvenience.

"Is it likely that there will be a terrorist among us [pyrotechnicians]? Probably not," says Royce Trout, president of Atlas. "But all our lives have changed in one way or another since Sept. 11. This is our industry's way of participating to make sure nothing else happens."

Going the extra mile

Mr. Trout, whose company will put on 200 fireworks shows this Fourth of July, says he worked extra hard to obtain fireworks, fingerprint his employees, and help customers wade through the application process because he knew how important the celebrations were this year.

"A lot of communities are telling us, 'This is a pretty important show for us this year. We want to make it a first-class event,' " he says.

It's especially important this year because many people stayed away from celebrations last year - security concerns and fear of traveling being the main culprits.

• Organizers for Boston's big Independence Day bash are expecting droves to return this year, after attendance last year dipped to 275,000 from the usual 400,000.

• In St. Louis, city officials are not going to the security extremes they did last year, when fences were erected all along the Mississippi River to keep terrorists from swimming up and creating havoc. With people turned off by such measures, sales at last year's Fourth of July celebration were down 25 percent. Although a friendlier approach is in place this year, residents are also becoming used to tougher security and won't be scared away by it.

"Last year, they didn't know what to expect. This year they do," says Rich Meyers, executive director of Fair St. Louis.

• Retail sales of red, white, and blue merchandise are on the upswing. The fireworks industry is experiencing a robust year, with sales of backyard boom-makers up 20 percent last week alone. And flag sales continue to climb - with more than 60 percent of American consumers owning the Stars and Stripes, according to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation in Washington.

The survey had also reported that 12.7 percent of consumers were planning to purchase more patriotic merchandise in the weeks leading up to Independence Day.

"The war in Iraq brought back the American spirit, despite the sluggish economy," says Tracy Mullin, the federation's president. "Consumers are proud to wear and display the red, white, and blue, and retailers are racing to keep up with demand."

Things are even looking up in some Western states. Last year, Colorado's worst drought in recorded history forced the cancellation of virtually all public fireworks displays. This year, however, most cities are planning displays, thanks to the snow and rain that fell this spring.

Minimal cancellations?

Overriding the excitement, however, is whether the new federal regulations will have any impact on planned events. Analysts believe the numbers affected will be minimal - but that doesn't ease the minds of those who are still waiting for approval.

Cavitt, president of the Comanche Kiwanis Club, which organizes the yearly event in this central Texas town, has been assured that her application will be approved. But she's still waiting.

"We had to jump through all sorts of hoops this year," she says. "But I don't mind. I'd rather err on the side of safety." Still, she jokes about her application process, "I'm a dangerous criminal now. I'm on file with the FBI."

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