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Chin Up For Mardi Gras

Tourists and locals stood side-by-side - in some spots six to eight feet deep - as two of the Carnival season's biggest and glitziest parades rolled through a city struggling to reclaim some of its famous fun.

"It's very special," said Barbara Sykes, who flew in from Irving, Texas, where she's been living since Hurricane Katrina. "It's part of my heart, my blood."

The prelude to Mardi Gras - French for "Fat Tuesday," the last day before the traditional sacrifices of the Christian season of Lent - brought party-hungry crowds to New Orleans' traditional parade route Sunday, nearly six months after Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city and dispersed more than two-thirds of the population.

Mardi Gras "is just a symbol of the fact that New Orleans is going to come back," said Stephanie Hall, 28, a city resident. "New Orleans has always done what it wants to do and it's gonna come back whether the country wants it to or not."

A threat of thunderstorms Saturday prompted a one day delay of the Krewe of Endymion's parade, which followed the Krewe of Bacchus through the Uptown neighborhood on Sunday night. Three smaller parades were held in the afternoon.

Lori Caswell, 34, of Chesapeake, Va., said this is her first time participating in the festivities and she was surprised by the number of people involved. "It's a blast," she yelled, above the screams of children seeking beads. "It's like no other fun I've ever had."

Caswell's friend, Yvette Hairston, said she was glad the parades drew so many people back to her hometown because it's a sign that people are putting money back into the economy.

"It's a sign there's life here," she said. "It's a rebirth."

The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the predominantly black organization that puts on one of Fat Tuesday's most beloved parades, was scheduled Monday to hold its annual "Lundi Gras" party - the start of the ceremonial arrival of make-believe monarchs Rex and the king of Zulu by boat on the Mississippi River.

While some decried the city's plan to hold Mardi Gras celebrations while tens of thousands of residents were displaced, Ebony Jenkins, who lost her home, car and possessions in the flood, was in a festive mood nonetheless.

"My take on it is: Let it roll," she said as she waited for floats and masked riders to fill the street and shed a rain of doubloons and beads on the throngs.

Celebrities in town for the long weekend included musician Harry Connick Jr., actors Dan Aykroyd, Michael Keaton and Jim Belushi, and CNN's Anderson Cooper, who rode on a float.

Visitors are often estimated at more than 1 million for Mardi Gras. Pat Kaschalk, a public school teacher in New Orleans, said this crowd seemed a little thinner.

"It was actually possible to catch something this year," she said. "We were able to get close to the floats and make eye contact with the riders. Normally we wouldn't be able to do that."

The party began Friday in the French Quarter, as the streets filled with revelers, many in costumes - white Elvis jumpsuits, sexy bustiers and T-shirts with obscene slogans taking aim at government officials.

New Orleans native Martin Bordon, 56, a firefighter, said he's never ridden in a Mardi Gras parade, but on Tuesday planned to don a costume and ride for the first time.

"I'm rewarding myself for the episode, the Katrina episode," he said. "I'm going to celebrate fully."

Ordinarily, most New Orleans residents skip the French Quarter frenzy in favor of family celebrations along the parade routes, but many said they changed their minds after being exiled by Katrina.

Police officer Jonathan Carroll Jr., whose house took 8 feet of water, said: "Six months ago, when we were pulling people out of the flood, I would have never believed we'd be doing this now."

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