Mardi Gras shakes off Katrina

Sunshine and mild temperatures helped bring the crowds out yesterday as New Orleans’ first post-Katrina Mardi Gras neared, but a stroll through the French Quarter is a lot easier now than it was this time last year.

Sunshine and mild temperatures helped bring the crowds out yesterday as New Orleans’ first post-Katrina Mardi Gras neared, but a stroll through the French Quarter is a lot easier now than it was this time last year.

“Right now, you can walk right down the middle of Bourbon Street. Before, it was so crowded, it was almost an adventure trying to get across,” said Scott Escarra, the manager of the famed Café du Monde. Sales of beignets, the cafe’s signature pastries, were down about 25%, he said.

New Orleans’ annual pre-Lenten celebration of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is one of the city’s major tourism events.

yesterday’s events included the arrival at the Mississippi Riverfront of Rex, King of Carnival, followed by fireworks that capped a day of riverside concerts; and the annual Orpheus parade, a spectacle of fibre-optic lit floats led by native son Harry Connick and featuring actors Steven Seagal and Josh Hartnett as this year’s celebrity monarch.

After a rainy Saturday forced postponement of some parades, fair weather brought out more people. Throngs lining the routes of the family-friendly uptown parades were thick, but still not as deep as in years past.

Restaurants reported brisk business, but there are now fewer of them to fill up: 506 are operating, out of 1,882 restaurants pre-Katrina, said Tom Weatherly, vice president for research with the New Orleans Restaurant Association.

Hotel rooms were filled, but again, there are fewer – about 15,000 instead of the 25,000 last year – according to Denise Estopinal, a spokeswoman for the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association.

Although the number of celebrants was smaller than in past years, many local residents appeared to be joining out-of-towners in restaurants and shops in the French Quarter, said Mark Wilson, president of the French Quarter Business Association.

“There a lot of locals who have come out to support it. This year, I’ve seen families. In talking to some our members, the art galleries and some of those folks are doing pretty well,” Wilson said.

Several hundred people attended the morning opening of the annual Lundi Gras festival put on by the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the 97-year-old predominantly black club that will stage its annual parade on Tuesday.

“We usually see about 10,000 people but there are nowhere near that many this year,” said Gay Fulton, 62, who was running a Zulu souvenir booth. “Still, it’s tradition and the ones here are enjoying it.”

Her mother Vera, 82, was also at the festival. “Might as well enjoy ourselves while we can,” Vera Fulton said. ”Lot of us had enough trouble surviving to get here.”

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