NEW ORLEANS >> Revelers bared flesh and threw beads on Bourbon Street until the sun rose on Mardi Gras to mark the annual pre-Lenten celebration that takes on so many shapes in New Orleans, from early morning parades to gay costume balls and second-line dancing of Mardi Gras Indians.
The festivities began shortly after sunrise, as members of the traditionally African-American Krewe of Zulu boarded floats at the Louisiana Superdome in preparation for their annual parade through the city.
Soon to follow would be the parade of Rex, King of Carnival.
Gray skies hung over the city and there was a threat of rain. But spirits, at least so far, didn’t appear dampened.
This year, Carnival has seemed bigger and more brash than in recent years since Hurricane Katrina, perhaps because this year it falls during spring break.
"Since it seems that we’re going to have the largest crowd that we’ve had in a few years, I just hope the crowds are having a good time," said Anthony "Tony" Barker, king of Zulu.
People were having a good time.
"No matter the weather, we’re going to have some fun," said Henry Youngblood, a 78-year-old second-liner and retired praline salesman.
The city was in a triumphant mood.
"We’re back all the way, and we’ll continue climbing," said Herschel Abbott Jr., the king of Rex, the holder of the keys to the city during Carnival.
The triumph was 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 sheer 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 a bit more punch to this annual pre-Lenten celebration.
Ali Miller, 23, an early childhood major at the University of Southeastern Louisiana, was jubilant as she walked home Mardi Gras morning after a long night of drinking in the French Quarter and throwing beads from a balcony on Bourbon Street.
"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 officially kicked off Monday evening when Rex was given the keys to the city by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in a blowout on the riverfront that included fireworks, music, a fly-over by Dolphin military helicopters and Rex’s pronouncement that "all commercial endeavors be suspended and that pleasure may rule day and night."
Monday, also known as Lundi Gras, saw the city actually shutting down its premier boulevard — St. Charles Avenue — because of the sheer load of trash lining it. St. Charles is the main parade route for the biggest themed parades — Bacchus, Thoth and Muses. This year, super krewe Endymion also rolled that route after rain on Saturday forced organizers to move the parade to Sunday.
Lundi Gras night featured spectacular parades, too. Proteus, the second-oldest parade in the city founded in 1882, and Orpheus, a krewe organized by New Orleans singer Harry Connick Jr., both rolled Monday night.
Among the crowd on Bourbon Street was Norma Breslin, 36, from Aguascalientes, Mexico. She stood on a balcony overlooking the street, throwing beads and loving every minute.
"It’s fun, it’s addictive," she said, as people below beseeched her for beads — some lifting their shirts to bare skin in exchange for beads.