With Mardi Gras a memory, New Orleans sobers up

February 22, 2012 - 6:35 PM
Mardis Gras Ends

New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, center, leads scores of his officers as well as members of the Louisiana State Police down Bourbon Street just after midnight on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, a traditional march that proclaims an end to Mardi Gras. (AP Photos/The Times Picayune, Michael DeMocker) MAGS OUT; NO SALES; USA TODAY OUT

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — By dawn on Wednesday, stately St. Charles Avenue, where tens of thousands spent Mardi Gras feasting, drinking and scrambling for beads, was cleared of mountains of trash left behind by revelers.

New Orleans' iconic green streetcars again clacked along the tracks, and in the French Quarter stragglers mustered what energy they could as the exodus of visitors began.

Later, churches in the heavily Catholic city filled with the faithful as Ash Wednesday ushered in the season of Lent.

At the international airport, officials reported a steady outflow of visitors, many draped in beads they'd snatched at the stream of parades that reached its peak on Fat Tuesday.

Airport spokeswoman Michelle Wilcut said the trinkets were a headache for TSA security officers but passengers were moving along nicely to waiting aircraft.

Traffic on streets around hotels was backed up Wednesday as cabs picked up departing tourists. Bourbon Street was immaculate with debris removed and streets washed down. It was mostly deserted except for a long line of beer and liquor delivery trucks restocking depleted bars.

"To put it simply, Mardi Gras 2012 rocked," said Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who entered Wednesday's news conference singing "Iko Iko," a traditional Mardi Gras song.

The event was expected to exceed the $300 million economic impact of Mardi Gras 2010, Landrieu said.

Although arrests were up over last year, Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said that was because of a crackdown on both curfew violations by teenagers, and activity that infringed on the rights of others.

There were two shootings near parade routes, including one Mardi Gras night, but they resulted in only minor injuries, police said.

Tourism officials said more than 1 million people came to New Orleans during Carnival season, which began Jan. 6. The city's 38,000 hotel rooms were 97 percent full, with packed restaurants and businesses humming.

But in Jackson Square, on Wednesday tarot card readers and artists read books or dozed at their stands outside St. Louis Cathedral. Among the few people who wandered through the area were some with black ash smudges on their foreheads, signs of Lenten repentance.

Colin Tyler, who takes visitors on tours of the French Quarter in his mule-drawn carriage, said the trade during the Carnival season was tremendous.

"It was really great business-wise, but it's not always easy for us," Tyler said. "Ninety percent of our customers were drunk."

With the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament and French Quarter Festival coming soon, he expected a lucrative spring.

Three women from Bonaqua, Tenn., sat at a table at Cafe du Monde eating beignets and sipping coffee with beads around their necks.

Lou Ann Bryan said this wasn't her first Mardi Gras but her two friends were newbies.

"It's too wild at our ages," Bryan said. "We're all retired."

Normally about 15,000 passengers fly out of New Orleans on a regular day. Thousands more were expected to go out on Wednesday, Wilcut said.

"We're pushing through a lot of bodies," Wilcut said. "Some are in better shape than others this morning. It's a pretty quiet group."

As party-weary visitors headed home, many recovering locals replaced Fat Tuesday's merrymaking with the reverence of Ash Wednesday.

It was standing room only at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in the business district. As bells chimed, the faithful — many in business attire, suits and high-heel shoes — filed through the doors to receive ashes.

Wearing a hair net and long blue apron, Elenor Poplion, a cook from a nearby deli rushed in to receive her ashes. Poplion said she'd have to immediately get back to making the fried fish, shrimp pasta, baked chicken and Cajun rice being served at the restaurant, "but my mother would kill me if I didn't come get my ashes," she said with a laugh. Poplion is 56; her mother is in her 90s, she said.

Frank Cook, a parishioner of St. Patrick's, said it's important that the church offer ashes during the day.

"I'm retired, so I can come anytime, but a lot of people have to work today and wouldn't get their ashes if we didn't offer them during lunch."

Niccole Gordon, who was headed to the airport for her return flight to Chicago, said St. Patrick's was a welcoming place where she could begin to atone for Fat Tuesday's excesses.

"After all the fun I had, I definitely needed to come receive ashes and prepare for Lent," Gordon said.

St. Patrick's seats about 500 and pews were full during midday Mass. An extra priest and two deacons were brought in to deliver ashes to the hundreds of judges, lawyers, restaurant workers and hotel employees who took time from their workday to go to church.