NEW ORLEANS — They say they needed it this year, more than any other.
They needed to dance without regard for tomorrow, to laugh without worrying about what's waiting at home, to cut loose without caring what the world thinks.
This year, Mardi Gras in New Orleans has taken on special meaning. For many in this hurricane-scrubbed city, it is about the triumph of the human spirit after the worst natural disaster in United States history. It's about feeling "normal" again for the first time since hurricane Katrina struck six months ago.
This year marks New Orleans' 150th Carnival season - ending Tuesday with the observance of Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras in French. It has been canceled only 13 times in the city's history, usually for war - and some said this year, after so much death and destruction, should have been No. 14.
But Mardi Gras was just what New Orleans needed, said others - an emotional bright spot amid the blight, an economic boost to bankrupt city coffers.
Usually, the 12-day Carnival season brings more than $1 billion in revenue to the tourist-dependent city. This year, the celebration is curtailed to eight days, and while city officials say it's too soon to tell whether it will be an economic boon, the crowds have been a little larger than expected - even with the occasional soggy sky.
That is a small victory. Much larger is the signal the city is sending to the rest of the world.
"We desperately need to let the world know we're alive and that we're open for business," says Arthur Hardy, author of Mardi Gras Guide magazine for almost three decades. He hopes visitors will dine in the French Quarter, cheer parades through the Garden District, and go antiquing along Magazine Street. But Mr. Hardy's fond desire is that they'll take in much more. "We hope people see the devastation when they come, to better understand what we've been through."
New Orleans celebrated the first masked Mardi Gras in 1837, and the first float parade in 1857. The Roman Catholic Church licensed Carnival, which translates "farewell to the flesh," as a celebration of indulgence before adherents begin the fasting of Lent.
It has taken a more secular route in New Orleans, with thousands of floats, hundreds of marching bands, and dozens of parades. The city has come up with its own colors of purple, green, and gold, its own tradition of throwing of trinkets from floats, and its own custom of eating oval-shaped King Cakes during Carnival.
At Manny Randazzo's King Cakes, people line up at 5 a.m. to get one of the first fresh offerings of sweet bread. The owners don't reveal how many they bake each day, simply saying, "We get in at 11 p.m. and just bake until we can't bake anymore."
While Mardi Gras is usually crazy around here, the bakery this year is doing a brisk business shipping its fruit-filled cakes to places as far away as California and New York. Some are being sent to evacuees who need a little reminder of home. Others are being sent in thanks to those who helped after the storm.
Because demand was so brisk this year, the bakery finally limited cakes to eight per customer. "A lot of people need to have some reminder of what life used to be like," says Johnita Perkins of Randazzo's.
Raymond McCabe is one of those. By the time he arrives at the Metairie, La., bakery, the cakes are sold out for the day. He plans to come earlier the next day because "this is tradition, and we are all just trying to get back to normal - even if we have to go back to our trailers at the end of the day."
Though much emphasis was put on getting tourists to come, a lot of this year's parade crowd is local, with families who have watched parades from the same street corner for decades reconnecting with friends and neighbors for the first time since Katrina.
Jennifer Drake has walked the few blocks from her Garden District home to watch evening parades along St. Charles Avenue. After a few floats pass by, she says the celebration seems smaller and much more subdued.
"But I'm OK with that. This year it's not just a party, it's about healing," she says, a few strands of beads dangling from her neck. "The city needs Mardi Gras, and the rest of the country needs to see that we are still hurting. All you need to do is drive into the Ninth Ward or Lakeview to see that."
Zachary Dyer has done just that. He has come from South Carolina for his first Mardi Gras. While he has partied and watched parades, his friends have also taken him to some of the more devastated parts of the city. "I've seen pictures, but it is really bad up close," says Mr. Dyer, ordering a plate of beignets at Café du Monde after a late night.
His friend, Frans Labranche, nods and follows suit on the breakfast order. He's happy to finally see tourists returning to the battered city, giving it a little more life. "It's ironic that it's taken so many out-of-towners to make it feel like home again."