New Orleans' Mardi Gras rocks amid worries

March 4, 2003 at 12:59 PM
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NEW ORLEANS, March 4 (UPI) -- Costumed revelers tossed beads and doubloons from parade floats in the final party of Mardi Gras on Fat Tuesday despite a cold drizzle and extra security.

Nearly 2 million people were expected in New Orleans for the parades and X-rated French Quarter exhibitions that annually precede Lent, but celebrations were also in nearby Mobile, Ala., and in Galveston and El Paso in Texas.

Film director Spike Lee was the honorary grand marshal of Tuesday's Zulu Parade, a procession of 40 floats that wound down St. Charles Street, with revelers throwing beads and trinkets to the thousands who lined the street begging for a souvenir.

Additional security was in place for the second year because of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, including Coast Guard helicopters to watch for crowd control problems.

Terry Ebbert, director of Homeland Security for New Orleans, said his office worked closely with the new national Homeland Security office, the FBI task force on terrorism and the Coast Guard to ensure a good time for the thousands of celebrants.

"We've also got a large contingent of state troopers, which allows us to take a lot of people out of uniform and use them in an undercover role to work through the crowds," he said Tuesday.

"We've also got a 24-hour command center to coordinate all the activities."

Ebbert said members of the Louisiana National Guard were also in New Orleans for the Mardi Gras celebration but in a back-up capacity and out of public view.

"We've had no indication whatsoever that the footprint of southeast Louisiana has any targets for terrorism," he said.

Cloudy skies, a light drizzle and temperatures in the 50s greeted the thousands looking for a good time early Tuesday. Rain hampered Luna Gras celebrations Monday and one suburban parade was postponed until Tuesday.

In Metairie, the Zeus parade was delayed for the first time in the krewe's 26-year history. In New Orleans, the Proteus and Orpheus parades rolled on schedule Monday, but the Orpheus floats shortened their route because of the weather.

The riverfront celebration included face painting, acrobats, and jazz bands along with plenty of shrimp po-boys, crawfish pasta, crawfish pie and fried eggplant for hungry partygoers.

Mardi Gras historian Arthur Hardy says the celebration brings about $1 billion in annual spending to the Big Easy. In 2001, there were 53 parades with more than 1,000 floats, nearly 600 marching bands, and more than 135,000 participants.

Mardi Gras ends at midnight in New Orleans when the street sweepers begin rolling through the streets.

New Orleans is the most famous Mardi Gras site in the United States, dating back to 1857, but other cities have been joining the party in recent years.

Six parades marched through the streets of Mobile, Ala., on Fat Tuesday and celebrations were also under way in Galveston and even El Paso in far West Texas.

Nearly 20,000 partygoers were expected to pack the convention center in El Paso for the second annual Mardi Gras blowout. The event was moved to the larger venue this year after the success of last year's downtown celebration, which drew 10,000 people.

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