Thousands of hurricane-weary residents joined with rowdy visitors for Fat Tuesday, taking a break from rebuilding New Orleans to put on wild costumes and celebrate the second Mardi Gras since Katrina.
John Ferguson, who is still rebuilding his house almost 18 months after the storm, said of the celebration: “We never needed it more.
“I work all day at my job, then I work all night and all weekend on my house. I just want to eat, drink and have fun today,” Ferguson said.
Many spectators spent the day along the parade routes or in the French Quarter, where the first Mardi Gras parade of the day was staged by the 1,250-member Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a predominantly black group that wears grass skirts and blackface makeup in parody of stereotypes from the early 1900s, when it was founded.
“I’m hyped up,” said Ike Williams, a 42-year-old Atlanta contractor who is black. He wore black face, a frizzy black wig and a grass skirt as he marched in his first parade as a member of Zulu’s Walking Warriors. “I couldn’t sleep last night. This is the center of the universe right now.”
Mayor to revelers: Spend money
Earlier in the day, Mayor Ray Nagin rode a horse down St. Charles Avenue.
“We’re going to make it happen,” Nagin told the crowd at Gallier Hall, which served as city hall for over a century. “We’re going to rebuild this city regardless.”
Nagin urged tourists to spend money. “We need the tax revenue bad,” he said.
The crowds appeared larger than last year, when an estimated 700,000 people were in the city for the final weekend and Mardi Gras. The city’s 30,000 hotel rooms were 95 percent occupied, according to Fred Sawyers, president of the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association.
Pete Fountain is back
Along some parade routes, crowds listened to Pete Fountain’s Dixieland jazz as his Half Fast Marching Club kicked off the day. It was the 46th time the Grammy-winning clarinetist had made the march from Commander’s Palace restaurant in the uptown section to the Mississippi River.
“This is like old times,” said Fountain, 76, who lost his house along with his gold records and collection of instruments in the hurricane. “New Orleans will always get ready for a party.”
Fountain, in a bright red vest and a jeweled headdress with turquoise plumes, played his clarinet from his mock St. Charles Avenue streetcar.
Fountain has missed it only once: last year, when he was recovering from heart surgery. About 200 marchers, including a second band, accompanied him. This year the entire group was costumed as gypsies — an homage to people who have been living in hotels, trailers and otherwise making do since the storm.
“I figured we’d be gypsies since everyone moved around so much,” said Fountain, who lost his home in Bay St. Louis, Miss., to Hurricane Katrina along with musical instruments and his gold and platinum records.
‘It’s like a big neighborhood’
Corinne Branigan, 40, wore a brown T-shirt with the slogan, “New Orleans. Established 1718, Re-established 8-29-05,” referring to the date Katrina struck the city.
“This is everything that’s great about New Orleans rolled into three days,” Branigan said. “Food, music — we’ve got the best marching bands in the country. It’s like a big neighborhood. Everything else is forgotten for the time being.”
In the French Quarter, the celebration was more raucous as revelers swapped flashes of flesh for beads tossed from balconies.
Costumes ranged from the glamorous to the satirical.
Judy Weaver, 49, and R.M. Elfer, 50, wore nuns’ habits with camouflage capes as the Angry Little Sisters of the Apocalypse. They carried rulers bearing the slogan “weapons of mass instruction,” and what they called novena bombs — originally, toilet floats — and rapid-fire rosaries.
“We are cleaning up crime in the city,” Weaver said.
Running on ‘three hours of sleep’
Nate Garnache, 30, wore a military-style costume of cardboard and duct tape with beads glued on. He had a beer in one hand and another tucked into his waistband. Ashlye Keaton, 21, wore a pink cardboard-and-bead skirt modeled after Roman armor, pink beads and pink cardboard shield over black knee-high boots and fishnet stockings.
“You become one with Carnival this way,” said Keaton.
Last year’s festivities were scaled down — fewer parades and only about 13,000 hotel rooms available. This year there were 30,000 rooms ready and for the big weekend leading into Mardi Gras, most of them were filled.
“The weekend was surprisingly busy,” said Earl Bernhardt, co-owner of two bars and a blues club in the French Quarter. “The crowd is bigger and they’re spending a lot of money.”
Three parades rolled Monday night, including Orpheus, the glitzy parade founded by singer Harry Connick, Jr. Actress Patricia Clarkson and New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton were celebrity monarchs.
Big crowds lined the parade routes beginning late last week and continued through Monday night. Bourbon Street also was packed with revelers.
“We haven’t paced ourselves at all,” said Tracy Brown, 25, of Dallas. “We got here Saturday and I think we’ve only had about three hours of sleep since then.”