Mardi Gras crowded

Published 12:33 am Tuesday, February 5, 2008

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Chuckling as a man clad in a scanty pink negligee and matching panties strolled down Bourbon Street, tourists Bill and Sherry Jordan were undaunted by news that gunfire had marred this year’s Mardi Gras celebration.

‘‘We’re not afraid,’’ Sherry Jordan, from the north Louisiana town of Downsville, said Monday morning as she took in the French Quarter sights with her husband of 40 years.

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the often raucous end to the pre-Lenten Carnival season. Characterized by family friendly parades uptown and in the suburbs — and by heavy drinking and lots of near-nudity in the French Quarter — the celebration is highlighted by 12 days of parades and parties. It appears to have bounced back strongly since Hurricane Katrina flooded more than 80 percent of the city in August 2005.

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On Monday, unseasonably warm temperatures and partly cloudy skies drew people like the Jordans to the Quarter’s bars and restaurants and to a free concert in nearby Woldenberg park. Meanwhile, streetcars on historic St. Charles Avenue were gone; They were shut down Friday so parade fans could pitch tents, set up lawn chairs and stake out prime spots to watch processions such as Harry Connick Jr.’s Orpheus parade, which rolled Monday night, and the Rex and Zulu parades on Fat Tuesday.

Lining St. Charles were ladders with seats bolted on top where children can sit to catch beads tossed by float riders.

Mardi Gras crowd estimates hovered around 1 million in the years before Katrina. They reached 800,000 last year. Police declined to project how big the crowd will be on Tuesday, but the hotel association said occupancy in the area’s 32,000 hotel rooms should exceed 90 percent for the long weekend that ends on Ash Wednesday.

Still, aside from reports of sporadic crime, another possible drag on attendance this year is the calendar. Mardi Gras, always the day before the Christian calendar’s Ash Wednesday, fell very early this year, well before traditional college spring breaks.

That was fine with Holli Freeman, manager of the upscale Redfish Grill restaurant in the Quarter. She said crowds so far have appeared about the same size as usual but were more local, more mature and freer spending than the hard-partying college kids who often jam the Quarter on Mardi Gras weekend.

Less happy was bartender John Phillips at the Tropical Isle bar, which pushes a potent cocktail in a flourescent green container called a Hand Grenade.

Business was better last year, he said. ‘‘We’re just going to make the most of it,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s still better than business on any regular Monday.’’

Marring the celebration have been sporadic reports of violence. Last Wednesday, a stray bullet shattered a hotel window and struck and wounded a tour guide standing inside. He wasn’t killed.

Friday night, police said, a man was wounded by gunfire near a parade route that skirts the crime-plagued Central City neighborhood; Saturday night, shortly after the Endymion parade had passed, five people were hit by gunfire downtown.

At least one man was shot in an early morning shooting Monday on Bourbon Street.

‘‘The violence that happens along the parade routes here and in the city (is) not surrounding parades, it’s not surrounding parade goers,’’ said Sgt. Joe Narcisse of the New Orleans Police Department. He said most of the violence is related to drugs or involves people with personal grudges.

‘‘It is in the rarest of times where actual true, good, law-abiding citizens are actually hurt by this,’’ he said.

Winter Williams agreed.

‘‘If you’re at Mardi Gras and you get shot, it’s because you’re doing something you shouldn’t. I’m not worried at all,’’ Williams, 34, said Monday as she awaited the parades near her tent on the St. Charles streetcar tracks.

More wary were Sissy and Mark Johnson. The couple reside in Abita Springs, about an hour’s drive north of New Orleans. They moved there from suburban Metairie after Katrina.

‘‘We don’t come down here nearly as often as we used to,’’ Sissy Johnson said as the two sipped White Russians in the French Quarter. ‘‘It’s really sad. Crime is just too bad.’’