Big Easy Celebrates Fat Tuesday

Revelers celebrate Mardi Gras as they march through the Hurricane Katrina ravaged streets of New Orleans, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2006. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
AP Photo/Bill Haber
Some may question the appropriateness of having a raucous party in a city still devastated and in mourning six months after Hurricane Katrina. But for Monk Boudreaux, tradition is thicker than flood water.

Boudreaux, 64, is part of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition that historians say dates back more than a century: Dressed in elaborately feathered and beaded costumes, he and other black New Orleanians parade, dance and sing through their neighborhoods.

"This is more than tossing beads and having a party. This is something that runs deep inside us," said Boudreaux, the Big Chief of the Golden Eagles tribe. "It's in our blood."

But another Mardi Gras mainstay, celebrated New Orleans jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain, sat out the parade of his Half Fast Marching club for first time in 46 years Tuesday morning. The 75-year-old musician was ill with high blood pressure, said his manager, Benny Harral.

The Half Fast marchers and Mardi Gras Indian processions are two small parts of the city's annual Mardi Gras bash that climaxes on Fat Tuesday with family-friendly parades uptown and raucous misbehavior in the French Quarter.

Live Video: Mardi Gras Activity On Bourbon Street
On The Early Show on Fat Tuesday, Mayor Ray Nagin told co-anchor Rene Syler, "I'm really proud of all the emergency responders and the police and firefighters and city workers that have done an incredible job of putting on this Mardi Gras. This is kind of a bittersweet Mardi Gras for most of us because of a lot of the challenges with the rebuild that we still have ahead of us."

Nagin urged Americans watching news coverage of the festival not to be deceived by the parade scenes, pointing out the routes go through areas Katrina left relatively unscathed.

"It's a tale of two cities, if you will," he said. "Where the parades are passing, you know, that was areas we didn't have a lot of flooding or very little flooding. If you venture out to other areas of the city, where the breeches of the levees happened, you'll see mile after mile, block after block of devastation that's still out there."

The pre-Lenten tradition, ingrained in city culture, is also a major tourist event that locals are hoping will help renew an economy that came to a halt after the storm and has been struggling back to life.

Along Bourbon Street, cheering revelers in purple and green beads were out before dawn, while workers with brooms and trash barrels swept up piles of debris in the streets.

Restaurants reported brisk business, but there are fewer restaurants: 506 of the pre-Katrina number of 1,882 restaurants were operating, according to the New Orleans Restaurant Association.

Hotel rooms were filled, but again, there are fewer, about 15,000 instead of the usual 25,000, according to the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association. And some of those are filled with construction workers and evacuees.

After a rainy Saturday forced postponement of some parades, fair weather brought signs of economic success on Sunday and Monday, but on a smaller scale.

On Monday night spectators lined up four or five thick to watch the most decadent parade since Hurricane Katrina. The Krewe of Orpheus, founded by bayou native Harry Connick Jr., pulled out all the annual stops to awe revelers: flaming torches, boldface-named riders, masked horsemen and massive fiber optic-lit floats.

But no amount of pomp could fool seasoned revelers. Mardi Gras 2006 only resembles past carnivals on the surface. At its core, it is a diminished, more solemn version of past Mardi Gras carnivals.

"This year's Mardi Gras can't compare to what I've seen here five, 10 or 20 years ago," Billy Carroll, a gardener from Atlanta who formerly lived in New Orleans, told "Usually, the parades are almost too rowdy to the point where you're kind of nervous. This year, it's easy to walk around and people are so friendly. It's a changed place."

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