- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2007

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - 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 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. I just want to eat, drink and have fun today,” Mr. Ferguson said.

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 whose members wear grass skirts and blackface makeup in parody of stereotypes from the early 1900s, when the group was founded.

“I’m hyped up,” said Ike Williams, a 42-year-old Atlanta contractor who is black. He wore blackface, a frizzy black wig and a grass skirt as he marched 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.”

Despite local leaders’ concerns that escalating crime would scare away tourists, 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, said 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 Mr. 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,” Miss 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,” Miss Weaver said.

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