Mardi Gras Beat Stronger Post-Katrina

NEW ORLEANS — As New Orleans rebuilds more than two years after Hurricane Katrina, its annual Mardi Gras celebrations, which culminate Tuesday, have been harbingers of the city's return to normalcy.

At no place is the annual party more measurable than lunchtime at Galatoire's Restaurant on historic Bourbon Street.

Friday lunch at Galatoire's is a traditional celebration enjoyed mostly by locals. For years, patrons would wait in line outside the restaurant, sometimes for more than a day, for a chance to secure a table, said Christopher Ycaza, a manager. After Katrina, the restaurant began auctioning off seats for lunch and giving the money to local charities, he said. This year, the restaurant raised $58,450 and drew patrons from throughout the city and around the country.

"It's a different vibe this year," said Simone Rathle, a publicist and Louisiana native who flew in from Washington, D.C., for Friday lunch at Galatoire's. She wore a bright pink feathered hat. "It feels like everything is back."

Waiters balanced trays of oysters en brochette and potato soufflé through throngs of patrons, some wearing colorful wigs or feather masks. Glasses of Sazerac, the local whiskey-based cocktail, and champagne clinked as a Dixie band serenaded diners with When the Saints Go Marching In.

The lunchtime crowd at Galatoire's showed little signs of a city struggling to recover.

"Normal abnormalcy," said John Frederick, 55, a New Orleans physician, who was eating at a table covered in confetti, beads and cocktails. "The spirit of New Orleans is about enjoying yourself and having a good time. This is it right here."

Mardi Gras dates back to the 1700s in New Orleans, imported by the French to celebrate before the pious observance of Lent. Celebrations are held for three weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday with parades, floats and elaborate costumed balls.

Mardi Gras went on in February 2006, even while most of the city was still buried in piles of mud-caked debris from Katrina's floods. The number of Mardi Gras visitors dropped from more than 1 million before Katrina to 360,000 that year, said Mary Beth Romig of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The number grew to about 800,000 in 2007, she said. No estimates have been made yet for this year.

Prior to Katrina, the three-week event generated up to $1 billion in revenue, Romig said.

This year, sporadic reports of violence have marred festivities. In separate incidents last week, a tour guide was struck by a stray bullet, a man was wounded by gunfire near a parade route, and five people were hit by gunfire downtown, police said. At least one man was shot on Bourbon Street early Monday.

Sgt. Joe Narcisse of the New Orleans Police Department said most of the violence is related to drugs.

A check last weekend of area hotels showed an average of 90% occupancy, a good sign of a strong Mardi Gras, Romig said.

The 600-room Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter has been sold out for two months, said spokeswoman Andrea Thornton.

"People are just happy to be having a good time and quit worrying about other things, like insurance companies and contractors," she said.

Contributing: The Associated Press