Some may question the appropriateness of having a raucous party in a city still devastated and in mourning six months after the deluge of Hurricane Katrina. But for Monk Boudreaux, tradition is thicker than flood water.
Boudreaux, 64, is part of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition that historians say dates back more than a century: Dressed in elaborately feathered and beaded costumes, he and other black New Orleanians parade, dance and sing through their neighborhoods.
"This is more than tossing beads and having a party. This is something that runs deep inside us," said Boudreaux, the Big Chief of the Golden Eagles tribe. "It's in our blood."
Pop singer Britney Spears spent part of Carnival with a group of area high school students whose lives were upended by Katrina.
Standing in the French Quarter, Spears talked Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America" of her recent meeting with four older students from St. Catherine of Siena School.
Spears took the students shopping and out to eat at one of Cajun chef Emeril Lagasse's restaurants for some Southern cuisine, including fried chicken and red beans and rice.
"It was an honor to be here with all of them," Spears said.
Mardi Gras mainstay, celebrated New Orleans jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain, sat out the parade of his Half Fast Marching club for first time in 46 years Tuesday morning. The 75-year-old musician was ill with high blood pressure, said his manager, Benny Harral.
The Half Fast marchers and Mardi Gras Indian processions are two small parts of the city's annual Mardi Gras bash that climaxes on Fat Tuesday with family-friendly parades uptown and raucous misbehavior in the French Quarter.
"Mardi Gras is part of our tradition," Mayor Ray Nagin told NBC's "Today" show on Tuesday. "We're celebrating our 150-year anniversary. It's part of our DNA, if you will. And it's a bittersweet occasion because there's lots of people who still aren't here, but it's turned into a reunion of sorts."
The pre-Lenten tradition, ingrained in city culture, is also a major tourist event that locals are hoping will help renew an economy that came to a halt after the storm and has been struggling back to life.
Along Bourbon Street, cheering revelers in purple and green beads were out before dawn, while workers with brooms and trash barrels swept up piles of debris in the streets.
Restaurants reported brisk business, but there are fewer restaurants: 506 of the pre-Katrina number of 1,882 restaurants were operating, according to the New Orleans Restaurant Association.
Hotel rooms were filled, but again, there are fewer -- about 15,000 instead of the usual 25,000 -- according to the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association. And some of those are filled with construction workers and evacuees.
"Right now, you can walk right down the middle of Bourbon Street. Before, it was so crowded, it was almost an adventure trying to get across," said Scott Escarra, the manager of Cafe Du Monde.
Although the number of celebrants was smaller than in past years, many local residents appeared to be joining out-of-towners in the French Quarter, said Mark Wilson, president of the French Quarter Business Association.
"There a lot of locals who have come out to support it. This year, I've seen families. In talking to some our members, the art galleries and some of those folks are doing pretty well," Wilson said.
After a rainy Saturday forced postponement of some parades, fair weather brought signs of economic success on Sunday and Monday, but on a smaller scale.
Monday's events included the arrival at the Mississippi River front of Rex, King of Carnival, followed by fireworks that capped a day of riverside concerts; and the annual Orpheus parade, a spectacle of fiber-optic lit floats led by native son Harry Connick Jr. and featuring actors Steven Seagal and Josh Hartnett as this year's celebrity monarch.
To some of Katrina's hardest-hit victims, the party seems in poor taste. From Houston, refugee Samuel Spears said footage from his hometown of bead-tossing and carousing tourists just made him more angry.
"With them putting on Mardi Gras, without still having not addressed the basic human needs in this city, why that's just a slap in the face," said Spears. "I can't go home, but they can have a parade? That's ridiculous."
Wet and unusually cold weather in Galveston, Texas, which traditionally holds one of the biggest celebrations outside New Orleans, kept crowds smaller than expected, and many refugees were not interested in attending another city's Mardi Gras.
"It's kind of hard to go somewhere else after experiencing Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the greatest free show in the world," said Frank Livaudais, a native of New Orleans who sold his house after Katrina and moved to suburban Houston.
In Jackson, Mississippi, a Mardi Gras event at Hal & Mal's Restaurant will feature a casket on which evacuees can write down their fears and painful memories of the Aug. 29 hurricane and "symbolically bury the past."