Notebook: A Memorable First Mardi Gras

CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts filed this Reporter's Notebook from New Orleans.

This was my first Mardi Gras, and I'll always remember it ... for what it wasn't.

Like many around the country, I thought Mardi Gras was simply about booze and bad behavior on Bourbon Street — and that certainly occurs. But boy, was I wrong! The Mardi Gras I experienced said far more about family and faith (not merely religion) than it did about partying and drinking.

Almost any local will tell you their Mardi Gras is a family event. Any of us who ever went to a parade as a child can relate to this Mardi Gras — popcorn, candy, bands, loud music, funny costumes and amazing colors, every day on the streets of this city … where six months ago, I watched men and women cry, beg for water, and grieve the lost of loved ones.

This past week I saw children and parents holding hands and laughing. Six months ago I saw victims. This time I saw survivors.

I remember one little boy standing, or I should say wobbling, in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel one evening after a parade. He couldn't have been any older than 4, and he must have had 20 pounds of Mardi Gras beads around his neck. It all looked heavy, but he sure looked happy. He was with his dad, and he was the center of everyone's attention who walked by. Tourists took his picture, and he smiled. It was nice to see a child smile again in New Orleans.

I guess that was part of the beauty of this year's Mardi Gras. I know many people were against having any celebration this soon after Hurricane Katrina. And who could argue with them? Nearly 1,300 people confirmed dead and nearly 2,000 still missing — people have a right to grieve as long as they need to.

But for those who needed Mardi Gras, it would appear their hearts were nourished. This Mardi Gras did not — and will not — have the same economic impact of Mardi Gras past. But it was something. This is a region still in desperate need of anything good, and any amount of cash that can come this way.

When Fat Tuesday is over, the hangover to beat all hangovers will begin in Mississippi and Louisiana.

In New Orleans more than half the population is gone; much of the tax base — gone. In neighboring St. Bernard Parrish, once home to 70,000 people, only 10,000 citizens remain. Since Katrina, 12 have committed suicide. When you talk to people here, you hear different things. Some say the best is yet to come. Others fear this region will never recover in their lifetimes. But to a person, everyone I spoke with is fearful of the upcoming hurricane season, now about three months away.

One sheriff wondered out loud: How dangerous will Interstate 10 be when thousand cram the highway with their FEMA trailers attached to their vehicles, all trying to escape "the next big hurricane." People here are already talking about the "next disaster" and "more death." They're still recovering from Katrina.

I didn't have a beer, walk in a bar or take any pictures with a drunk. That might be how some remember this Mardi Gras. For me I'll simply remember that boy with the beads around his neck. That day at Mardi Gras, when a child was allowed to be a child again — and his father, beaming with pride as people took pictures of his boy, was able to feel like a man again.

Katrina took lives and livelihoods and temporarily stripped people of their dignity. In an odd way, all the goofiness attached to Mardi Gras helped restore some of that dignity. People here work hard, party hard. And there's an attachment to family here that the rest of America could learn from.

Like many places in our country, there are wonderful people along the Gulf Coast. You should find time to visit them. Bring a hammer and some nails and a willing heart to help. It's the Gulf Coast this time; it might be yours or mine next.