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Despite Katrina, The Good Times Roll

Tourists and locals stood side-by-side — in some spots 6 to 8 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.

"The last several days have been really bright moments for the city of New Orleans as people have started to celebrate Mardi Gras, and send a message to the rest of the country that life is back and that the people of New Orleans are here to stay," reports

.

"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."

CBS News correspondent Kelly Cobiella reports that as bad as things have been for New Orleans, the historic city has found the right prescription – humor (video).

The prelude to Mardi Gras — or Fat Tuesday — 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.

The largest crowds of the week have gathered along the Uptown New Orleans parade route as the Proteus Krewe kicked off their parade, CBSNews.com's Christine Lagorio reports.

It's not as big a party as in past years, reports CBS News correspondent Peter King (audio) but that doesn't seem to matter to first-timers such as Nancy Kerwin, who came from California.

"It's a fantastic community pulling together. We're here to support the reconstruction of New Orleans, and we wouldn't have missed it for anything," said Kerwin.

Locals like Cliff Drummer say they're grateful some of the tourists are back.

"The city needs money. We need to attract some money to the city," Drummer told King. "Maybe if they use that money in the right areas, it'd be a good thing."

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."

It's not back for everyone. Jane Sedgebeer told

she nearly couldn't bear to return from Alabama to New Orleans, her family's home for generations.

"It's heart sickening to see those homes," Jane said. "I wish people could understand that what you see on TV is not anything like riding through a neighborhood and seeing deadness. No life. Nobody is living there."

But New Orleans is becoming home to violent gang members, CBS News national correspondent Byron Pitts reports. Violent Latin Gangs are the newest element facing New Orleans and surrounding Parishes, mixing in with the estimated 50,000 Latin workers who've poured into the region to help with post-Katrina clean-up.

"They're skilled laborers by day and killers and thieves at night," Pitts reports. Four members of the notorious MS-13 were arrested recently in New Orleans' St. Bernard Parrish. Authorities tell CBS News they were sent to Lousianna as 'spotters, as the gang looks to expand its territory.

Tonight some 2,000 federal state and local law enforcement are in New Orleans for Mardi Gras festivities. 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.

The rainout forced two of the largest and most popular parades to roll back-to-back, reports Dave Cohen of CBS radio affiliate WWL-AM (audio) — and the crowds loved it.


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.

Nearby, Mark Krasnoff and Monica Verdin sold boudin — a type of sausage mixed with rice, onions and peppers — to parade-goers.

"This is important to us, whether tourists come or not," said Krasnoff. "Every parade brings out the locals and lifts people's spirits. We can dance again."

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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