Cold, rain no match for Mardi Gras die-hards

Like a migrating bird, Alan Jackman heads to New Orleans for Mardi Gras every year seeking a reprieve from the frigid Philadelphia winter.

Enamored with the city’s rich cuisine and unique culture, he hasn’t grown weary of the tradition even after two decades of participating.

Carnival 2014 didn’t disappoint the droves of tourists who descended on New Orleans for an extended weekend of unbridled revelry. But there was something foreign about Fat Tuesday this year — and Jackman could feel it whipping against his face as soon as he parked his vehicle along South Claiborne Avenue and began walking to the parade route.

“It’s a little bit cool for me,” he said of an inclement morning in which temperatures lingered in the upper 30s, one of the wettest and coldest Mardi Gras on record.

Tuesday’s unseasonably low temperatures were cause for bewilderment after a weekend in which spectators attended Uptown parades in shorts and sundresses. The conditions clearly limited the crowds that sloshed their way to see the krewes of Zulu and Rex, leaving less-than-usual competition for water-logged throws along St. Charles Avenue.

But as Nancy White, of Atlanta, observed, a contingent of die-hards came out in full force, warming themselves near grills and keeping dry under tents that in previous years were used to provide shade. For many natives, skipping Mardi Gras is as improbable as missing a Saints game or evacuating for a tropical storm. As Jack Laborde, the King of Carnival, put it along the route, “This is what we do in New Orleans.”

“I’m real impressed,” White, attending her first parade, said of the undeterred regulars huddling under umbrellas and waving at passing floats on Napoleon Avenue. “We had to go get in the car at one point because it was so cold.”

New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said officials decided to continue to roll the parades because the weather system moving through the area lacked heavy wind and lightning. The day was uneventful from a public safety perspective, he said, aside from an incident in which a Zulu float struck a 35-year-old man who was going for a throw in the Treme neighborhood. His condition was not immediately known, but Serpas said he was believed to have suffered only minor injuries.

“We have really had a great Mardi Gras season,” Serpas said in a telephone interview, noting earlier parades had drawn huge crowds but little to no problems over the weekend. “I think tonight at midnight, when we close the streets, I’ll be talking about an arrest rate that could be as much as 35 to 40 percent lower than last year.”

Col. Mike Edmonson, the State Police superintendent, said the day amounted to a “nonevent” for the 160 troopers he deployed to New Orleans to help keep the peace. “Having the rain certainly slows down the bad side of Mardi Gras as far as anything happening with the massive crowds,” Edmonson said.

The showers began earlier than expected and seemed to catch some paradegoers off guard. At the corner of Jackson Avenue and Claiborne, shortly after Zulu began, unprepared spectators crowded into a Shell station to buy coffee and sought shelter under the canopy. Rain ponchos were among the most popular costumes.

“It’s not ideal, but it’s still Mardi Gras,” said U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who staked out a prime spot along Napoleon Avenue for the start of Rex. “People who are into Mardi Gras are going to enjoy it — period.”

That included Jaime Smith, of Slidell, who woke up at 4 a.m. to secure her usual vantage point of Zulu along Jackson Avenue.

“You’re supposed to do it, and it’s a good time for the kids,” said Smith, who sat bundled up to her face hoping to catch one of the krewe’s fabled coconuts. “The rain’s not going to stop us.”

Despite the chill, it wasn’t the coldest Mardi Gras on record — that distinction belongs to the near frozen fête held Feb. 14, 1899, a holiday that saw three inches of snow and a high temperature of 38. As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, the mercury had reached just 40 degrees, and the city had seen more than one-third of an inch of rain.

“It was definitely cooler than expected,” said Bob Wagner, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

The weather did little to dampen the allure of the French Quarter, and the annual Bourbon Street Awards costume contest proceeded as planned. It also was no match for Leonard Harris and his family, who have caught the parade at the corner of Jackson and Magnolia since time immemorial.

“I don’t care how cold it is,” Harris said. “This is my favorite holiday because you run into people you haven’t seen in years.”

In Covington, the steady rain and specter of frozen precipitation prompted officials to shorten parade routes. “The crowds were thin,” Police Chief Tim Lentz said. “We cut it a little short.”

In Metairie, the Krewe of Argus rolled an hour ahead of schedule in an effort to get ahead of deteriorating conditions.

“Things went very well, all things considered,” said Kriss Fortunato, a Jefferson Parish spokeswoman. “The crowds were actually pretty good.”

Serpas, the NOPD chief, said he was most gratified with the crowds’ willing compliance with new city regulations that include prohibitions on roping off sections of the neutral ground and placing ladders, grills or tents within 6 feet of a curb.

“I think the people must have heard clearly our message that you would rather have your police officers looking for folks who are trying to be dangerous or hurt others as opposed to arguing over where a ladder should be,” he said. “It seems like that’s kind of taken hold this year.”