"It's a lot more mature. There are more families out than usual," said Anthony Bordelon, a Jackson Square artist painting designs on revelers' faces on Tuesday, the culmination of the eight-day pre-Lenten bash.
A few blocks away, the landmark Cafe du Monde did a brisk coffee-and-beignet business, but it didn't measure up to years past.
"When you compare the whole ball of wax, it will be weaker than last year," said Burt Benrud, the cafe's vice president.
Vast stretches of New Orleans are still in ruins and thousands of its residents are scattered six months after the storm smashed thousands of homes and killed hundreds of people.
Lissette Sutton, owner of a French Quarter souvenir store, said she hoped the celebration would show that the city can handle tourists again.
After a day full of parades, Bourbon Street was crowded with hard-drinking revelers, a mixture of college students, relief workers, locals and tourists.
"We came to support the state and city," said Roy Nunnery, of Springfield, Mo., who was on his seventh trip to New Orleans to mark Fat Tuesday.
Jewelry artist Emily Breckheimer, of Asheville, N.C., said the city has "more than enough spirit to go around."
But there was no escaping signs of Katrina.
Zulu, the 97-year-old Mardi Gras club, or krewe, that lost 10 members to the storm, 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.
Then there were the costumes, wickedly satirical designs that drew from the city's post-storm plight and took aim at everyone from Mayor Ray Nagin to former FEMA director Michael Brown to President Bush.
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?"
Kevin and Marie Barre 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.
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."