| NEW ORLEANS
NEW ORLEANS New Orleans got ready on Friday for the bead-throwing and bacchanalia of the final, climactic weekend of Mardi Gras amid ugly reminders of the violence gripping the storm-shattered city.
Two people were killed and seven others were wounded in two shootings ahead of a steady stream of parades scheduled from Friday night all the way to Fat Tuesday.
Neither of the incidents occurred at Mardi Gras events, but officials who had predicted a big turnout for this year's festivities feared they could frighten away would-be visitors.
Police said two men were shot to death and a third man critically wounded on Thursday evening while in a car in the Ninth Ward, one of the areas still devastated by damage from Hurricane Katrina.
Early on Friday, six people were wounded in a shooting at a nightclub. The gunman escaped along with 150 other people who stampeded out in a panic, police said.
The killings were the latest in a wave of murders that has rocked New Orleans since the beginning of the year.
Police Sgt. Joe Narcisse said 26 people had been killed in 2007.
Mayor Ray Nagin, who has been criticized for not addressing the crime problem, issued a statement saying he was "deeply saddened that our young people continue dying in our streets" and called New Orleans "our fragile city that is still on the journey to recovery."
This is the second Carnival season since Katrina struck on August 29, 2005, flooding 80 percent of the city and killing 1,300 people.
HOMES STILL DAMAGED
Thousands of homes still sit damaged and abandoned as less than half of the pre-storm population of 480,000 has returned.
The city put on a slimmed-down version of Mardi Gras in 2006 in what officials viewed as a symbol of the city's survival of Katrina.
This year's festivities, which began on February 9, are back to a fuller schedule, and look and feel "more like an ordinary Mardi Gras," said Mardi Gras historian Arthur Hardy. "In this town, ordinary is good right now."
He said there had been little talk of the symbolic value of Mardi Gras this time because "we're trying to get back to normal."
Normality has been a precious commodity in New Orleans since Katrina, where the lifeblood of its economy -- tourism -- has been well down from pre-Katrina levels.
Attendance at last year's Mardi Gras was below the usual 1 million people who crowd into the city, with some estimates putting it at 400,000.
"We certainly believe we'll have a bigger crowd this year," said police chief Warren Riley.
He said extra patrols would be used to watch over revelers as they indulged in the traditional Mardi Gras activities of drinking and begging for beads thrown from passing floats.
Tourism industry leaders say at least 80 percent of the city's 30,000 hotel rooms will be filled for the last days of Mardi Gras, but they worry the ongoing crime will bite into business.
"We can't hide from the fact that the reporting about crime has put a dent in tourism," said Mary Beth Romig, director of communications for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Sometimes we can't get over the doubts that some people have who are worried that it won't be safe."
(Additional reporting by Russell McCulley)