In Katrina's Wake, Carnival Rolls On

Mardi Gras krewe dancer
CBS/Christine Lagorio
CBSNews.com's Christine Lagorio is reporting on the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

After dusk during the carnival season, the French Quarter's Bourbon Street is usually impossible to navigate freely.

"The street is usually packed to its edges. When the crowd surges, you just have to move along with it," said Troy Hotard, an artist from Baton Rouge and perennial Mardi Gras visitor.

But this year, the crowd is sparse along Bourbon Street, even though it's the eve of Lundi Gras, the last celebration day before Mardi Gras.

Nearly six months after Katrina flooded most of the city and scattered more than two-thirds of its population, the hurricane's destruction hung over the bacchanalia like a dark fog.

And it lingered underfoot. Along with beads and plastic cups from signature Mardi Gras "hurricane" drinks, debris from home siding and roofing still lie in the gutters. Not far from the French Quarter, stoplights don't work and each home bears the spray-painted "X" with coded marks, sometimes noting DOA – or Dead On Arrival.

With so many of the city's residents still dispersed throughout the country, crowds have been thin — and the parades much shorter. Krewes had difficulty rounding up members and bands to form complete parades. Many lost floats and costumes.

Irvy Cosse, founding captain of the Krewe of Napoleon, told CBSNews.com's Christine Lagorio that rounding up the krewe's 300-some dedicated members wasn't difficult. Nor was salvaging the bright, decadent floats. But finding young marchers from local high school bands, pompon and twirling teams was hard. Many families have settled elsewhere after leaving New Orleans.

"In the past, we've had 13 bands. This year, we could only round up three," Cosse said.

His show went on anyway. Just before dusk Sunday in the neighborhood of Metairie, a police motorcade and horseback Napoleon lookalikes paraded out of a shopping center parking lot to meet bead-hungry children and their parents.

The youngest marchers in Napoleon's parade wore fresh-looking smiles and black leotards. The Rhythm Dance studio from Westwego, La., saw its practice facility wiped out by the hurricane, and many girls left their uniforms behind when their families fled the storm.

"It's been a unique year to say the least. We're all back together now and have new uniforms," said the studio's director, Stacey Boheman, 30. "It feels good to be together and safe."

Parades aren't just a morale booster for some. They are a way of life.

Larry Denny has been a member of the Krewe of Napoleon for 15 years, and before that was in one of the largest krewes, Baccus. The hurricane couldn't stop him from marching, he said, because nothing could. Not even his own wedding.

"I married my wife on Valentine's Day" on a year when Mardi Gras fell early, Denny said. "My bride walked down the aisle and then drove me over to the convention center where the floats were stored and kissed me goodbye. We put off the honeymoon, because Mardi Gras is far more important."

Cosse, Napolean's founder, said Mardi Gras is simply part of the definition of New Orleans to him. It's not a matter of money, supplies or population — so long as the members of Napolean are alive and kicking, their parade will roll on.

"When you grow up here, it's in your blood. You can't let it go, because you know that everywhere else in the world, it is just Sunday, Monday and Tuesday," Cosse said. "Here, it is Mardi Gras."

Back in the French Quarter, most of the partiers weren't locals. Most returned New Orleanians were hard at work behind convenience store counters, on roofs patching shingles or busing tables at restaurants.

For residents, hosting Mardi Gras seemed to be as much about showing resilience as rejoicing.

"It'd be great to drink, smoke and eat, but I just don't know if I can this year," said Larone Hudson, a waiter at a Chartres Street pub.

Rachel Calderon, a 25-year-old from northeast Louisiana, was on a Bourbon Street balcony throwing beads to partiers below. She and her boyfriend, Chris, are world travelers who couldn't afford or take time off work for more than a few days away this year. They drove to New Orleans Saturday for the first time.

"This was just sort of our default vacation. I love it so far. But I guess, looking around, it does look a lot like Beirut," Calderon said.

By Christine Lagorio

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.