As the hours wound down to Mardi Gras, 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 CBS News.com's Christine Lagorio. "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."
Down the block, new New Orleans resident Greg Keefe waited for Orpheus' floats to start parading past.
"This is my first parade. Most of us don't hang out at parades because there's such a great subculture here that we take advantage of instead," Keefe said.
Keefe is one of hundreds of construction workers who "chased the storm" into Louisiana and Mississippi to find repair work in its aftermath. For Keefe, a temporary gig turned into a passion for a place he'd never visited before. Now he's joined a prominent activist and Lower Ninth Ward rebuilding group, Common Ground, and is planning on sticking around.
Isn't living it up during Mardi Gras a necessary function of being a New Orleanian?
"I really don't get the beads. I mean, I have 30 pounds of beads. You see a gazillion on the street," Keefe said.
Nearly six months after Katrina flooded most of the city and scattered more than two-thirds of its population, all eyes are on New Orleans as it puts on the best show it can muster.
"I'm happy it's going on at all, though this is definitely more peaceful than I'm used to," said annual Mardi Gras visitor Troy Hotard of Baton Rouge.
"Show me something!" Hotard screamed to the crowd on Bourbon Street, trying to spice up the lackluster crowd moments later.
He got no takers.