NEW ORLEANS, La. – Dressed in sequined costumes, grooving to the rhythm of marching bands and clutching at strands of shiny beads, people in New Orleans celebrated the end of a Mardi Gras season tinged by tragedy after two bystanders were killed by floats in the days leading up to Fat Tuesday.
The party took place in neighborhoods across the city and got started before dawn. In the Treme neighborhood, the Northside Skull and Bone Gang in skeleton costumes went door to door to wake people up before sunrise. In Central City, where the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club parades, families seemed to have gotten up and in position just as early. And in the French Quarter, the streets were filled with costumed revelers.
“It’s any other day anywhere else in the world but here we celebrate life,” said Paul Craven, who was walking with his wife, son and friends on Royal Street in the Quarter. “Every day, every week there is some sort of festival going on. It’s either very extreme or very small but there’s the celebration of life but that’s what has kept New Orleans alive.”
Craven wore a sweeping purple sequined cape and a wreath of grape leaves on his head. He and his wife had dressed “Bacchusesque” — a nod to Bacchus, the Greek god of wine and the namesake of one of the parades leading up to Fat Tuesday.
Carnival season began Jan. 6 and ends Tuesday. It's usually a time of frivolity and fun as thousands of people swarm the streets of New Orleans and other cities and towns in southern Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. But this season has been touched by tragedy after two revelers were killed during parades.
On Feb. 19, as thousands gathered to watch the all-female Krewe of Nyx parade, 58-year-old Geraldine Carmouche of New Orleans died after being struck by a tandem float. Tandem floats are multiple floats pulled by one tractor.
Then on Saturday night during the Endymion parade — one of the biggest and glitziest parades every year — Joseph Sampson, 58, of New Orleans was hit and killed by a float, also a tandem, while watching the parade.
Following the deaths, the city announced a ban on tandem floats for the rest of the season. Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said Monday that representatives from parade krewes, police and city officials will meet this week or next to discuss parade safety issues.
Safety was a concern for many parents as they watched over children eager to catch the last beads of the season.
“That has always been my No. 1 rule: Don’t run up to the floats,” said Keitra Boutan who was watching the Zulu parade in Central City with her daughter.
Like many others in Central City, Derek Hale got up early to stake out a place on the parade route to see Zulu. Hale's friend was riding in the parade so he was helping his friend's wife and three children watch.
“The most important thing is family, just being able to be out here and enjoying the music, the high school bands, the excitement that the kids have,” Hale said, holding his friend’s daughter in his arms as she watched her first Mardi Gras.
Hale said the deaths of two people killed by floats worried him, and he hoped there will be changes to make next year's parades safer, such as using more barricades to keep people away from the floats. As a lifelong New Orleanian he said he knows how rare such accidents are and viewed them as isolated incidents.
“I wouldn’t be out here with these three young babies if I didn’t think it was a safe environment for everybody,” he said.
In the French Quarter, people dressed up in intricate costumes played off of current events or simply employed a lot of sequins, glitter and feathers. This year there were a few revelers who dressed up as the “Corona Virus," or “Krewe da Flu" in a spoof of epidemic fears.
Tim and Diane deFrance clattered as they walked down a French Quarter street in outfits covered with anodized aluminum doubloons caught from parades over the years.
“We have a name for ourselves— the Doubloonatics,” Tim deFrance said.
On Bourbon Street where the party generally gets the most raucous, a kilted bagpiper played “The Wild Irish Rover," and “Happy Birthday,” while throngs of people clutching drinks walked by.
Every year at midnight, police ride on horseback to ceremonially “clear” the street although partying continues long past that. Then comes Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent and a time for many Christians to fast and reflect ahead of Easter.