New Orleans trades reality for revelry

Published 7:18 pm Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Gregory Scott, his wife, daughter and three sons pulled into New Orleans at 5:30 a.m. — hours before the first parade would even start — to claim a curb spot from which to see Mardi Gras revelry.

“It’s a big relief just to get out of the house and have fun,” said Scott, 41. He said he has been working on his house in eastern New Orleans, which was wrecked by floods when Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005.

He was among scores of people who began setting up grills before dawn on the second Fat Tuesday since the storm.

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It was the climax of a Carnival season that began on Jan. 6, with New Orleans’ first parades on Feb. 9.

Official data so far from the second celebration since Hurricane Katrina shows a city on the rebound. Last year’s festivities were scaled down with fewer parades and only about 13,000 hotel rooms available. This year there are 30,000 hotel rooms ready and for the big weekend leading into Mardi Gras, most of them were filled.

Pete Fountain, in a bright red vest and a jeweled headdress with turquoise plumes, played his clarinet from his mock St. Charles Avenue streetcar. It was the 46th time Fountain’s Half Fast Walking Club had strolled from Commander’s Palace to the Mississippi River front on Mardi Gras Day.

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 as 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. along with his gold and platinum records and a collection of musical instruments to Hurricane Katrina.

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.

Merchants, hotel operators and others felt the crowd would exceed the 700,000 who visited the city during the same time period last year, the first since the storm hit on Aug. 29, 2005.

“It was an excellent weekend,” said Michael Valentino, managing partner of three French Quarter hotels. “There is clearly more demand this year. It’s feeling more like our normal Mardi Gras pressure.”

Fat Tuesday is the last day of the Mardi Gras Carnival season. Highlights of the celebration were to be Rex and King Zulu parades in the French Quarter.

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.

This year, Orpheus organizers said they wanted to select monarchs who have been instrumental in the city’s recovery from Katrina. Few have done more to lift the city’s spirits than Payton and the New Orleans Saints, said Sonny Borey, the parade’s captain.

“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.”

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.”

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