If this was the day that New Orleans was to step out into the light, it did so haltingly, gingerly, its eyes squinted. On a dreary and chilly day, under splintered Southern oaks lining St. Charles Avenue, Mardi Gras began on Saturday, nearly six months after Hurricane Katrina brought the city to its knees.
There were floats with a giant crawfish and a big roulette wheel, but crowds were so sparse that paraders were left with unopened boxes of “throws,” mostly colorful beads that have long been cherished mementos of the festival.
The decision to stage the street party despite the enormous hardship still shouldered by hundreds of thousands of people had been controversial from the start, but for many, the identity of this city is so intertwined with Carnival that to do anything less would have meant, once and for all, defeat.
Yet any lingering concern that Mardi Gras could send a false and dangerous message to the nation -- that New Orleans has recovered -- was dispelled quickly.
By the end of the day, the consensus was that this Mardi Gras will not mean economic or spiritual salvation. Instead, it will be a reminder of the way things used to be and the way they might be again, a benign distraction from the storm, which informs every breath and step of those who have managed to come home.
Crowds, though they will surely pick up when Carnival begins its final push next weekend -- especially if the weather improves -- were shockingly small Saturday.
It is a tradition that parents bring stepladders equipped with small seats for children, who otherwise can’t see through the throng of adults lining the parade routes. That was not a concern this year, and many people, with a block virtually to themselves, laid the ladders on the ground.
There was a run of parades -- five in all, organized by “krewes,” secretive organizations with names like Shangri-La and the Knights of Sparta. The five have marched through the city’s streets a combined 175 times.
In years past, the parades would have been good for 10 hours or more of merriment -- long enough, as they say and do around here, to get drunk, sleep it off and then do it again before it’s over.
Saturday, with fewer floats, fewer bands and fewer onlookers, it was over in an hour and a half.
At St. Charles and Louisiana avenues, near the launching area for the parades, three enterprising teenagers were charging $20 to park next to a shuttered McDonald’s. Normally they would have made a killing.
“Lookee here!” shouted 14-year-old John Bethancourt, his voice not yet changed, his cheeks red in the wind and in no need of a shave. “Come on! It’s a parade!”
“People pull up and tell me I’m crazy,” he confided later. He nodded toward the free parking on the streets just a block away -- openings unimaginable in years past.
Wendy and Jimmy Herty, both born and raised in New Orleans, recenlty returned after 13 years living in other states and bought a house east of town, just in time for it to be severely damaged in the storm. They decided to make the trip into the city Saturday to support Mardi Gras -- even though, like many here, they remain unsure about the wisdom behind the decision to stage the event.
They didn’t get out of the house until 9 a.m., three hours before the first parade was to roll, and had to stop to get breakfast for their two children on the way into town. Wendy Herty was certain they were going to be late. Instead, they parked two blocks away and found themselves standing alone on St. Charles Avenue well before the first floats passed by.
“This is unreal,” her husband said. “I don’t see anybody. This is a prime spot. Normally, people would be six, eight, 10 people deep by now. For a lot of people here, tourism is income, and we can use every bit we can get right now.
Most were determined to make the best of it.
Jimmy Herty looked around at the empty streets and, while saddened, noted the absence of riff-raff, con artists and stumbling coeds who had become a hallmark of Carnival in recent years. “There is an element that used to be here that isn’t here right now,” he said. “And they are welcome to stay away.”
Don Nall, a resident of Baton Rouge, La., said he had avoided Mardi Gras for a decade because of the crowds. This time, he brought his 10-year-old daughter, Rebecka, knowing attendance would be sparse.
“I’m surprised they’re even having it,” he said. “When you think about what it was like five months ago, it’s kind of impressive they’re even pulling it off.”
The New Orleans area has lost an estimated $3.5 billion in tourism revenue since the storm, and many businesses had been looking forward to Mardi Gras for months. Recent years brought crowds of a million people or more to New Orleans and an economic boost estimated at $1 billion.
Usually the opening weekend is a major draw, with the partying lasting almost two weeks, until Fat Tuesday -- Feb. 28 this year -- the day before Lent.
City officials agreed to a scaled-back Mardi Gras schedule with a total of eight days of parades and fewer krewes marching than usual.
Most hotels were booked -- but between storm damage and rooms still being used by evacuees and contractors, fewer than 10,000 rooms were available to the public, less than a third of the number typically available.
On Magazine Street, just south of the parade route, at the Pinkie and Blue Boy vintage clothing shop, owner Clark Theriot said he hadn’t had a profitable day since he reopened late last year.
“It’s great the city’s having the parades. But it’s not going to save us,” said Theriot, who has used his savings to keep the store open. “All you can do is hope to survive, not only for the next six months, but also for the next two to three years.”
Back on St. Charles Avenue, Nicholas Thompson and James Hanson pushed a shopping cart full of cotton-candy bags down the street. Business was slow.
“We hope for the best. And we try not to expect the worst,” Thompson said.
Soon, the first parade rumbled toward them. It was led by a marching band attached to a school that has become known as MAX, an acronym of letters from the names of the three predominantly African American Catholic high schools that had to be combined when two were destroyed in the flood.
As band members marched by, taps on the soles of their white boots click-clacked on the asphalt and snare drums rapped out a cadence behind them. For a moment, it was possible to imagine that nothing untoward had happened here.
One man was using an alligator skull as a drink holder. Another had a woman’s thong on his head and suggested, with an air of nobility, that he was drinking for a cause. Merrymakers pressed toward the floats when they passed, begging for beads and specially minted doubloons with the traditional “Hey-yay-yay-yay!”
But reminders of the storm were everywhere.
When a Coast Guard helicopter thundered overhead, its passenger waving out the window, it was not cause for celebration so much as open discussion about whether that same helicopter had been used, not so long ago, to rescue people from rooftops.
“It’s so sad. There’s no one here,” said Freddie Boyer, a New Orleans native who was named for her father and teaches juveniles in Orleans Parish Prison.
For decades, Boyer’s large, extended family has met for the parades on the corner of St. Charles and Melpomene avenues. Typically, they take turns sleeping on the corner the night before to reserve the spot. That was not necessary this year.
When one krewe member on a float held up a sign that said, “We’re so glad you’re here,” Boyer shouted, her voice cracking: “We’re so glad you’re here too!”
Almost everyone in the family had made it back into the city for this year’s Carnival, Boyer said. There were Boyers and Heikels and Dittmers and Bornes, grandmothers and babies and cousins and twin sisters. The family lost a dozen or so houses to the storm. Boyer pointed from one relative to the next, walking through an inventory of hardship so staggering they had become numb to it.
“Her mother lost everything,” she said, pointing to a cousin. “She doesn’t have any sheetrock. Our grandmother’s house is being leveled this week. I’m sleeping on her sofa next to her father, who lost his house.”
Soon -- too soon -- the last parade passed by.
“Is that it?” Boyer asked.
“That’s it,” said one of her cousins.
“It’ll get better next weekend,” Boyer said. “It has to. Doesn’t it?”