By RUSS BYNUM
SAVANNAH, Ga. - Bagpipers in kilts and dignitaries in green jackets marched through rain showers and puddles today on a soggy St. Patrick's Day that drew noticeably thinner crowds of gaudy green revelers to Savannah's downtown sidewalks and oak-shaded squares.
"We're used to the bad weather," said Kayla Menheer, a Chicago native who tried to stay dry and festive Monday by wearing a hat-sized umbrella on her head as rain dripped through the overhead oak branches in Lafayette Square. "I'll take the umbrella hat over the winter coat."
Temperatures hovered comfortably in the 60s today, but the wet weather and start of the work week left plenty of room for umbrellas and party tents even in prime parade-watching spots. That didn't stop the 190-year-old parade celebrating Savannah's early Irish immigrants and their descendants from starting on time, though about half the convertibles used to chauffeur local dignitaries had their tops up as the procession rolled past.
Sidewalks typically jammed with people had plenty of room for walking, and squares that quickly become tent cities on St. Patrick's Day were largely unoccupied except for the outer edges.
Kelly Anne Lee of Mount Pleasant, S.C., marveled at the open grass behind her friend's spread in Lafayette Square, where Savannah families and their guests stake out spots each year to set up party tents and tables of food and drink. Last year, when the parade was held on a sunny Saturday, "you couldn't even walk and the bathrooms were insane," Lee recalled.
Her friend, Alton Aimar of Savannah, wore only a wide-brimmed hat to keep the rain off, as a coat might have covered his bowtie with its flashing green light. He said he hasn't missed a St. Patrick's Day parade in eight years.
"This is a rain or shine event," Aimar said, sipping a cold beer as the parade started moving at 10 a.m. "We're American, and we will anything for an opportunity to drink."
Pubs and nightclubs in Savannah's downtown historic district were still pouring after a busy weekend in which thousands of locals and visitors alike began celebrating Friday. Most of the 15,000 hotel rooms in town were booked for the St. Patrick's Day bash, which remains Savannah's biggest tourist attraction.
Last-minute changes to state and local laws this year let Savannah bars open Sunday, a day they typically can't serve alcohol unless most of their sales come from food. Pinkie Master's Lounge closed at midnight Sunday and reopened its doors at 7 a.m. Monday. Owner Guy Kirk said there were 40 people waiting outside to order their first beer or bloody mary of the day. But he said rain slowed business Sunday and threatened to do the same today, when the small bar had no empty seats but plenty of standing room by lunch time.
"I hope it picks up and it stops raining," Kirk said. "Last year there were so many people you could hardly walk in the street. So it's disappointing."
Michael Anderson of Savannah had stayed away from downtown Savannah on St. Patrick's Day for the past 15 years, saying he'd gotten burned out on the wall-to-wall revelry and lack of elbow room.
He was back today but ignored the holiday's traditional color code in favor of the head-to-toe yellow raingear he wears on rainy days at his job unloading cargo ships at the Port of Savannah.
"Cold weather or rainy weather, it doesn't bother me," Anderson said. "One thing that kept me away over the years is it got so crowded. It's good to be back."