Updated: February 13, 2013 at 12:00 am
NEW ORLEANS — Gaudy floats, beads and costumes gave way to street sweepers and repentance as Fat Tuesday ended and largely Catholic south Louisiana welcomed Ash Wednesday.
At midnight on Mardi Gras, a wedge of law enforcement — mounted horsemen — moved slowly down Bourbon Street to clear off remaining drinkers, declaring the all-day party over. Well before then, sweeper trucks began clearing tons of beer cans, broken beads and other trash from city streets dampened by intermittent rain showers throughout the day.
As Lydia Thumser, of Berlin, Germany, strolled through the city streets taking in the sights and sounds of her first Mardi Gras, she said she would like to attend her first Ash Wednesday service as well — even though she isn't Catholic.
"I am curious to see not just the party but what happens afterward," she said.
Churches around the area scheduled Masses at which priests would dot or cross the foreheads of the faithful with ash to mark the start of the 40-day Lenten season of penitence and fasting.
As a parade of revelers strolled by in Mardi Gras masks, costumes and boas, New Orleans resident Diane Williams sipped wine on her front porch Tuesday and said she'll worry about repenting Wednesday.
"Today is all about friends, family and vino," she said, adding that she is Catholic and planned to receive her ashes. "Getting ashes, it's a part of the tradition. I don't give anything up, I just try to be nicer to people because I feel that's more effective than giving something up."
Donna Margin, 53, of New Orleans, said Wednesday would be a day of rest for her, but added that she and her family definitely would observe Lent.
"We don't eat meat for a month," she said of their planned sacrifice.
Mardi Gras crowds throughout the metropolitan New Orleans area were a little smaller than recent years, perhaps influenced by the forecast of rain. Still, parades went off as scheduled even as a fog settled over the riverfront and downtown areas.
Police, who had to deal with massive waves of visitors — first for Super Bowl and then for Mardi Gras — reported no major problems other than Saturday night when four people were shot on Bourbon Street. Two suspects have turned themselves in and police said they were also seeking a person of interest in the shooting.
There was a heavy police presence in the tourist-filled Quarter, where crowds began to swell in the early afternoon and burst at the seams by Tuesday night.
The family side of Mardi Gras unfolded along stately St. Charles Avenue, where some groups camped out overnight to stake out prime spots for parade-viewing. A brief rain shower as the final float in the Krewe of Rex parade passed by didn't dampen the enthusiasm there.
Cathy Mizell-Nelson, of New Orleans, and her children, Keely Mizell, 16, and Arlo Mizell, 11, were dressed in white and black trash bags taped together. "We're the Superdome during the blackout," Mizell-Nelson said, referencing the dome's 35-minute power failure during the Super Bowl.
The Krewe of Zulu led the festivities from city neighborhoods to the business district, followed by Rex, King of Carnival, and hundreds of truck floats decorated by families and social groups.
"That was one parade lasting four hours?" Evan Hafer, 23, of San Diego, asked incredulously after Zulu's final float passed by. He and friend Cameron Celeste, 25, of San Diego, were bedizened with an array of beads, including some with rubber ducks that stuck out long tongues when squeezed.
"We ordered them ahead," said Hafer, who was on a five-day trip with his best friend, brother and father to visit an uncle in the Algiers neighborhood on the west bank of New Orleans.
In the French Quarter, many revelers had drinks in hand before sunrise. Some donned tutus, beads and boas. Some hadn't been to bed since Monday's Lundi Gras celebrations.
"The sights today are jaw-dropping. It's a ton of fun and the best party in the world. Nobody does Mardi Gras like we do," said Bobbie Meir, of Gretna, La., with feathers in her hair and fingernails painted purple.
On Bourbon Street, women wore bustiers, fishnet stockings, bikini bottoms and little else. Some flashed flesh to attract the attention of people throwing beads from balconies.
"We're a flock of peacocks," said Laura Komarek, a recent New Orleans transplant from Minneapolis who moved to the Big Easy for a teaching job. Komarek and a group of friends walked Bourbon Street wearing leotards and large colorful feathers on their bottoms.
Sipping a hand-grenade, one of Bourbon Street's signature cocktails, Komarek said this was her first Mardi Gras.
"This is a totally different experience than any other event I've ever been to in my life. I'm so happy, having a blast with my friends without a care in the world."
The costumes were plentiful. Many revelers were clad in the traditional colors of Mardi Gras — purple, green and gold. There were cows, bees, pirates and jesters.
Among the revelers wearing plastic breasts and buttocks over their clothes was Mardi Gras first-timer Phil Weipert, of South Lyon, Mich.
"This is one big awesome party," said Weipert, who also had on a purple boa and matching hat with a gold crown. "I'm going to have to give up parades for Lent. I was going to give up booze but I'm definitely going to have to give up parades. I've been to like nine of them and I'm hooked."
Associated Press writer Janet McConnaughey contributed to this report.