NEW ORLEANS – 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 Hurricane 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," Ferguson said. "I just want to eat, drink and have fun today."
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 black face 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, marching 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."
The annual free-for-all party ended at midnight when police — some walking, some on horseback — followed by street sweepers marched down Bourbon Street declaring Carnival is over.
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 more than a century. "We're going to rebuild this city regardless."
Nagin urged tourists to spend money. "We need the tax revenue bad," he said.
Thousands packed the 12 blocks of Bourbon Street, and more flowed into the French Quarter as the parades wound down with the setting sun. Police said there were three shootings and one fatal stabbing, but they occurred far from the parade route and were considered unrelated to Mardi Gras.
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.
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."
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.