NEW ORLEANS – The crowds were small and the costumes wickedly satirical as Mardi Gras built toward its boozy climax Tuesday in this hurricane-buckled city that could use a few laughs.
The culmination of the eight-day pre-Lenten bash fell nearly six months to the day after the Aug. 29 storm that smashed thousands of homes and killed more than 1,300 people, the vast majority of them in New Orleans.
"I lost everything," Andrew Hunter, 42, said as he sat on the steps of his ruined home on Jackson Avenue. "But what the heck. This helps us keep our spirits up, and we need all the help we can get with that."
Even amid the typical debauchery — including early morning drinking, flashes of bare breasts and skimpy costumes in the French Quarter — there was no escaping reminders of the storm.
Zulu, the 97-year-old Mardi Gras club, or krewe, that lost 10 members to Hurricane Katrina, paraded amid homes that still bear dirty brown water marks from the floodwaters that covered 80 percent of the city. Another krewe, Rex, King of Carnival, paraded past a boarded-up store bearing a spray-painted warning that looters would be shot.
Kevin and Marie Barre, a husband and wife from New Orleans, wore white plastic coveralls bearing the all-too-familiar spray-painted "X" that denotes a home that has been checked for bodies. "It's a reminder. A lot of people who are coming down here don't understand what we've been through," Kevin Barre said.
Members of another club called the Krewe of MRE covered themselves with brown labels from the Meals Ready to Eat that were served to thousands who huddled in the Superdome after the storm. Others dressed as giant maggots, recalling the days when city streets were lined with abandoned refrigerators full of rotting food.
Mayor Ray Nagin, wearing a black beret and camouflage uniform, portrayed cigar-chomping Gen. Russell Honore, the military man who led the first big relief convoy into the city.
"It's been absolutely — I don't know how to describe it — great," Nagin said of the party. "Katrina did a lot of bad things. But it has done something to give New Orleanians a fresh love for their city."
Several people draped themselves in blue tarps like those used to cover damaged roofs, fashioning them into ballgowns and nun's habits. A man with a model of a military helicopter suspended over his head wrapped himself in a white blanket with "2000 lbs" stenciled on it — he was a giant sandbag, like the ones dropped into one of the breached levees.
Another group of French Quarter revelers dressed as blind people with canes and dark glasses. They wore hard hats and T-shirts emblazoned "LEVEE INSPECTOR."
Along an Uptown parade route, a family who lost their Lakeview home to flooding poked fun at former FEMA director Michael Brown. Jenny Louis, her husband, Ross, and their three children strolled around in all-brown costumes, similar to the uniforms worn by UPS drivers. Printed on their backs: "What Did Brown Do For You Today?"
Despite partly sunny weather and temperatures in the 70s, the crowds were smaller than usual in a city that still has less than half its pre-storm population of almost a half-million. Finding a prime parade-watching spot was not hard.
"We came out about 5 this morning and had no trouble getting a good spot," said Tammi Harlan, 56, of Metairie. "We've been coming to this spot for about 20 years, but normally the guys come the night before to make sure we get it."
Traditions held. About 160 members of clarinetist Pete Fountain's Half Fast Marching club had breakfast at the shuttered Commander's Palace restaurant before heading down the parade route — but without Fountain, who is ill and missed what would have been his 46th trip with the group. The celebrated musician is 75.
Visitors included New Orleans native Donald Rooney, now of Denver, who wore a purple, green and gold fright wig.
Mardi Gras is about "helping the city rebuild," he said. "It's my hometown. There's still a great soul that lives in the city that 10 feet, 12 feet of water can't kill, and it's coming back."