Crowds small at Mardi Gras parades

Sunday, February 19, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- The first of the major Mardi Gras parades with marching bands, brightly decorated floats and flying plastic beads rolled down New Orleans' streets Saturday, greeted by small but celebratory crowds.

Despite the widespread destruction from Hurricane Katrina, officials decided to allow a scaled-back Mardi Gras celebration this year. New Orleans parades, put on by private groups, were restricted to one corridor to help cut the cost of police protection and trash pickup.

Five parades rolled back-to-back in New Orleans on Saturday under cloudy damp skies through neighborhoods left mostly unscathed by the Aug. 29 storm. More were scheduled for Sunday and next weekend, leading up to Fat Tuesday on Feb. 28.

Capt. Juan Quinton, a police spokesman, said no major problems were reported along the route and that crowds, though small, were having fun.

Many of the residents attending the parades said Mardi Gras is an important part of the city's heritage. Children and families often gather on the same street corners year after year.

Less than half the city's pre-Katrina population of about 480,000 has been able to return since the storm, and New Orleans' efforts to cover parade costs with corporate sponsors flailed, forcing the city council to allocate $2.7 million to cover expenses.

Still, Guidry was on the street with family members and her 3-year-old son strapped in a seat atop a ladder, a tradition for children who grow up here during normal years when towering crowds of adults make it too difficult for children to catch beads.

"It's memories here," she said, gesturing down the street.

Helen Phillips, 62, said tradition and memories also brought her to her usual parade-viewing corner on St. Charles Avenue this year, hunkered in a lawn chair against the cold.

"I'm out here because of them," she said, looking at her 8- and 9-year-old grandchildren. "We figured why break with tradition this year?"

But Phillips didn't see many of the people who usually gathered on the same corner and speculated they were stuck in Texas or Alabama or wherever the storm scattered them.

"It's kind of depressing this year," she said.

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