NEW ORLEANS – Mardi Gras revelers drank and danced the rowdy Carnival season to its peak on Tuesday, defying drizzle to snag beads from the last parades and jamming the French Quarter with colorful, sweaty costumes.
Some bared flesh on Bourbon Street, while others wore outfits lampooning the BP oil spill or other headline-grabbing events. Overall, this Carnival season has been among the most raucous since Hurricane Katrina, partly because it overlaps with college spring break.
Clarinetist Pete Fountain kicked off Tuesday's parades shortly after dawn with his marching group. The traditionally African-American Krewe of Zulu and the parade of Rex, King of Carnival, followed. Mayor Mitch Landrieu led Zulu on horseback before dismounting at the antebellum-columned Gallier Hall for champagne toasts with Mardi Gras royalty.
By afternoon, the party had largely shifted from the family-friendly neighborhoods where the parades start to the packed streets of the French Quarter. The carousing would last until midnight, when Carnival is replaced by the Christian season of Lent.
Ashley Scharfenstein, 24, jived to the music at a street party in the Treme neighborhood before strolling off to the French Quarter.
"Wherever the music takes us, we're going," said Scharfenstein, who was dressed as a black peacock.
Even the police were having a "fantastic" Fat Tuesday with no major incidents as of the afternoon, said Officer Garry Flot, a New Orleans Police spokesman.
Partiers wearing satirical costumes — a Mardi Gras staple — found plenty of fodder in this year's headlines.
Retired hospital executive Pat Kent dressed up as a gun-toting priest. He said he and a friend were going as the "krewe of guns in church."
"Today I'm packing for Jesus," he said. Kent said his costume was in protest of a new Louisiana law allowing people to carry weapons in church.
Allen Logue, 58, walked through the French Quarter clad as a one-man oil spill cleanup crew. The oil field consultant from Barataria, La., didn't have to do much shopping to build his costume. He already had a hard-hat helmet and BP-branded sweat shirt from work he did for the company in Alaska.
"The only thing I had to shop for was the Jim Beam and that was to ease the pain of the oil spill," Logue said.
Sylvia Beyer, 57, of New Orleans led a group of 5 women in grass skirts and hats with the BP logo. On the back of their shirts were slogans, such as Broken Promises, Brazen Polluters and Bloody Pathetic. As they walked along, they passed out makeshift voodoo dolls with a photo of former BP CEO Tony Hayward pasted to each.
"We just wanted to stick it to BP. We put more time into these costumes than BP did in their disaster plan," Beyer said.
The new national healthcare program provided inspiration for New Orleans residents Hal and Sharon Moser. Hal Moser strolled along Bourbon Street dressed in a hospital gown with bloody bandages and a fake ax pasted to his head.
"I've got a split-open headache from it," Moser said. His wife dressed as a nurse.
The Transportation Security Administration also took hits. One group outfitted as TSA inspectors carried signs referring to body cavity searches.
Locals were in a triumphant mood, and not without reason.
New Orleans — America's poster child of disaster — has come a long way since Hurricane Katrina. Its beloved New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl last year, and it has largely overcome the disaster of the BP oil spill.
This year, the timing of Mardi Gras helped. It fell later than usual and coincides with spring break for college students. Students have been out in force — giving more punch to the annual celebration.
Two friends on spring break from Wilmington College made a 12-hour drive from Ohio.
Garret Lingoe, 21, a junior, clutched a beer at midmorning Tuesday as he talked in awe of Mardi Gras. "I didn't know I was coming here until about 5 days ago and I'm sure happy I did."
Seth Howard, a 23-year-old senior, echoed his sentiments. "Everybody down here is just so nice and laid back."
Ali Miller, 23, an early childhood education major at Southeastern Louisiana University, was jubilant as she walked Tuesday morning after a long night of drinking in the French Quarter.
"There is nothing like New Orleans," she said. "I would never ever want to grow up anywhere but here! And Mardi Gras is the craziest time you could ever have in life — I don't know what else to say."
Mardi Gras was being celebrated across the Gulf Coast, in cities including Mobile, Ala., and Biloxi, Miss. In the Cajun country of southwest Louisiana, masked riders on horseback continued the tradition of riding from town to town making merry along the way.