NEW ORLEANS – Ringing out one of the worst years in its colorful history, New Orleans launched into a rollicking New Year's Eve of memorials and merrymaking, from a traditional jazz funeral procession in honor of the hundreds of hurricane victims to an after-dark New Year's party.
Despite the destruction still evident four months after Hurricane Katrina, the city decided to welcome the New Year with fireworks, concerts, and in a twist on the Times Square ball drop, the lowering of a giant gumbo pot to mark the start of 2006.
"New Orleans is back open, so come on down and start visiting. That's the word to get out," said Brian Kern, an organizer of the festivities.
Before Katrina, the Big Easy's all-night bars, haute cuisine, steamboats and romantic French Quarter courtyards made it a favorite New Year's Eve destination for tourists.
This New Year's celebration, business leaders agreed, was the perfect chance to show the world that New Orleans still knows how to throw a party. The celebration this time was being funded by private enterprise, since the city's tax income was wiped out by the storm.
Even the Jazz funeral procession, which wound through the Uptown neighborhood Saturday afternoon, was festive. It drew people along the route into a traditional "second line" parade and made enough noise to bring the curious onto their porches.
"We're getting into the spirit," said Sharif Nadir, a 59-year-old writer, as he hugged friends and joined the second line. "I just hope it puts people into the spirit to rebuild."
Marc Pagani, a photographer for a bawdy group of majorettes backing up the procession's brass band, confessed to some discomfort amid the revelry.
"It's weird to be celebrating when so many people are homeless and miserable," he said. "But on the other hand, we need to celebrate. It's kind of half and half for me."
Even in the debris-strewn Lower Ninth Ward, the worst hit neighborhood in the city, a midnight ceremony was organized, with generators set up to light two blocks of the devastated area as a message of hope.
"The symbolism behind this is that we are coming home, the residents of the Ninth Ward are coming home," said resident Tanya Harris.
Revelers across New Orleans were urged to celebrate but to avoid lighting fireworks out of fear they could ignite the debris still piled throughout the city or the blue plastic tarps draped over thousands of damaged homes.
In major cities around the world, public fireworks displays and countdowns marked the last of 2005 and the start of a whole new year. New York's Times Square began filling hours early with revelers. While in Iraq, hundreds of U.S. soldiers who couldn't make it home for the holiday got a special show from entertainers brought to Baghdad to help them celebrate.