After Blocking the Bridge, Gretna Circles the Wagons
Little over a week after this mostly white suburb became a symbol of callousness for using armed officers to seal one of the last escape routes from New Orleans -- trapping thousands of mostly black evacuees in the flooded city -- the Gretna City Council passed a resolution supporting the police chief’s move.
“This wasn’t just one man’s decision,” Mayor Ronnie C. Harris said Thursday. “The whole community backs it.”
Three days after Hurricane Katrina hit, Gretna officers blocked the Mississippi River bridge that connects their city to New Orleans, exacerbating the sometimes troubled relationship with their neighbor. The blockade remained in place into the Labor Day weekend.
Gretna (pop. 17,500) is a feisty blue-collar city, two-thirds white, that prides itself on how quickly its police respond to 911 calls; it warily eyes its neighbor, a two-thirds black city (pop. about 500,000) that is also a perennial contender for the murder capital of the U.S.
Itself deprived of power, water and food for days after Katrina struck Aug. 29, Gretna suddenly became the destination for thousands of people fleeing New Orleans. The smaller town bused more than 5,000 of the newcomers to an impromptu food distribution center miles away. As New Orleans residents continued to spill into Gretna, tensions rose.
After someone set the local mall on fire Aug. 31, Gretna Police Chief Arthur S. Lawson Jr. proposed the blockade.
“I realized we couldn’t continue, manpower-wise, fuel-wise,” Lawson said Thursday. Armed Gretna police, helped by local sheriff’s deputies and bridge police, turned hundreds of men, women and children back to New Orleans.
Gretna is not the only community that views New Orleans with distrust. Authorities in St. Bernard Parish, to the east, stacked cars to seal roads from the Crescent City. But Gretna’s decision has become the symbol of the ultimate act of a bad neighbor, gaining notoriety partly from an account in the Socialist Worker newspaper by two San Francisco emergency workers and labor leaders who were in a crowd turned back by Gretna police.
Numerous angry e-mails to Gretna officials accuse them of racism. (Harris and Lawson are white.)
New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said Thursday that Gretna officials “will have to live” with their decision.
“We allowed people to cross ... because they were dying in the convention center,” Nagin said. “We made a decision to protect people.... They made a decision to protect property.”
Paul Ribaul, 37, a New Orleans TV-station engineer from Gretna, said New Orleans and the suburbs have a complicated relationship.
“We say we’re from New Orleans, but we’re a suburb,” he said. “The reason we don’t live there is we don’t like the crime, the politics.”
Ribaul was among Gretna residents who praised the decision to close the bridge. “It makes you feel safe to live in a city like that,” he said.
Critics suspect a racial motive for the blockade. City officials heatedly deny any such thing.
Among black residents of Gretna, some say that although they get along with most of their white neighbors, a few of the neighbors harbor strong prejudices.
Some black Gretna residents also speak fearfully of New Orleans. “We don’t have as much killing over here as in New Orleans,” said Leslie Anne Williams, 42.
Nonetheless, Williams’ mother, a lifelong Gretna resident who is also black, disapproved of the Police Department’s decision. People fleeing New Orleans “probably had a better chance of survival over here,” said Laura Williams, 70, “especially with all that shooting” across the river.
When Katrina hit, about 5,000 of Gretna’s residents were still in town. Police zigzagged the trim streets of ranch houses and older wooden buildings, checking on those who had not evacuated.
Like New Orleans, Gretna lost power and water. Town officials pleaded unsuccessfully for help from the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Then they learned that New Orleans officials had told the thousands trapped in that city’s downtown, similarly deprived of food and water but also dodging gunfights and rising floodwaters, to cross to Gretna.
Not sure how to feed even their own residents, Gretna officials were overwhelmed by New Orleans’ evacuees. They organized bus caravans Aug. 31 to take the arrivals to Metairie, 16 miles away, where a food and water distribution center had been set up.
The evacuees waited for rides out of Gretna at the foot of the bridge, across the street from Oakwood Mall. As the hours ticked by and the crowd swelled, trouble began, Gretna authorities said.
Sometime on Wednesday, Aug. 31, a fire broke out in the mall, next to the local branch of the sheriff’s office, and police chased suspected looters out of the building.
Mayor Harris had had enough. He called the state police.
“I said: ‘There will be bloodshed on the west bank if this continues,’ ” Harris recalled. “ ‘This is not Gretna. I am not going to give up our community!’ ”
The following morning, Gretna’s police chief made his decision: Seal the bridge.
The San Francisco paramedics said in an interview and in their article that there were gunshots over the heads of people crossing the bridge from New Orleans’ convention center -- many of them elderly -- where they were stuck for days without food, water and working toilets.
Nagin, New Orleans’ mayor, said that he’d heard similar reports about gunfire, as well as people being turned back by guard dogs.
Chief Lawson said that he was unaware of any of his officers shooting over the heads of evacuees on the bridge but said that one black officer did fire a shot overhead to quiet an unruly crowd waiting to board a bus.
Harris said Thursday that closing the bridge was a tough decision but that he felt it was right.
“We didn’t even have enough food here to feed our own residents,” Harris said. “We took care of our folks. It’s something we had to do.”
Times staff writer James Rainey contributed to this report.