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Neighboring town denied evacuees

Across from New Orleans, the Gretna police chief says he closed a bridge to protect his people.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published September 17, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - Confused and desperate, they marched by the thousands toward a bridge that could take them away from the chaos that enveloped this city after Hurricane Katrina.

They were turned back by men with rifles and dogs.

In stark contrast to Houston's welcoming embrace, the small town of Gretna, La., is accused of turning its back on a neighbor at the most trying time in its history.

And because most of the evacuees were black and most of Gretna is white, the episode has stirred charges of racism.

The Gretna police chief defends his decision to close the bridge. His town of 17,000, he said, feared for its safety from a tide of evacuees.

But the mayor of New Orleans said the bridge was one of the few escape routes out of his flood-ravaged city and questions Gretna's motives.

The steel bridge is 3,000 feet long. But the divide between the cities seems much bigger than that.

* * *

As flooding spread deeper into New Orleans the days after Katrina hit, police began sending evacuees to the Crescent City Connection Bridge, a main exit from the city.

On the other side, Gretna police Chief Arthur Lawson believed his town was heading toward calamity. A ship had damaged a levee wall, a diesel tanker was spilling fuel into his streets and water was rising from the south.

It was Wednesday and streams of people were flowing over into his town from a city with a perennially high murder rate.

At first, Lawson's officers tried to accommodate the crowds. One officer, who drives a school bus in his spare time, ferried evacuees to a staging area outside the city. Other officers commandeered two buses from a depot and began ferrying evacuees, too.

Within 24 hours, they transported 5,000 or more evacuees, Lawson said. But the crowds kept growing and the buses were running out of fuel. Late Wednesday, a Gretna shopping mall was set ablaze.

On Thursday morning, Lawson closed the bridge.

"We had never planned on evacuating anybody," said Lawson. "We had no more to offer, in fact, we had less. There was civil unrest at the convention center, but there was not anybody drowning."

Communication problems plagued the evacuation of New Orleans. Officials in both cities acknowledge they never communicated before, during or after the storm.

One group of 200 people in New Orleans, mostly stranded tourists, cheered when New Orleans police said buses were waiting for them in Gretna Thursday.

Their number doubled as they walked to the bridge. But there were no buses, only armed police, who shot over the group's heads, according to two visiting paramedics who wrote about their experiences for the Socialist Worker.

Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky said officers ordered them back down the bridge, away from the West Bank.

"The West Bank was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in their city," Bradshaw and Slonsky recalled Gretna officers saying. "These were code words for: If you are poor and black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River, and you were not getting out of New Orleans."

Police used dogs and shotguns to control the crowd, said Nagin. The evacuees were left helpless, the mayor said.

New Orleans police Chief Eddie Compass said he does not fault his officers for sending evacuees to Gretna, whether or not there was a plan to do so.

"Saving people was paramount," Compass said.

* * *

Chief Lawson acknowledges that thousands who tried to flee New Orleans through Gretna were turned away.

"They had been told in New Orleans, they were looked in the face and told, "There's something over there for you,' " Lawson said. "Then they got mad at us when they got here and realized there wasn't. It was promised as a land of plenty, but it wasn't. We were in disarray."

Police from Gretna and two other agencies guarding the bridge feared for their safety, Lawson said, discovering guns and other weapons among the crowd.

An African-American officer fired at least once in the air to calm the group, Lawson said, but that was when they were still loading evacuees on buses the day after the storm. Lawson said he planned to investigate other allegations, such as excessive force.

Lawson, who is white, said he closed the bridge because he had no other option and is now being called racist for it.

Reporters on the Fox News Channel expressed outrage late Thursday at the bridge closing.

Geraldo Rivera said thousands of evacuees were still at the Convention Center, including babies needing food and water. "Let them walk over this damn interstate and out of here," Rivera pleaded.

But his colleague Shepard Smith, reporting from a nearby overpass, said police had blocked the bridge. "Over there there's food and water, but you can't go from here to there," he said.

Internet sites also discussed the roadblock, supported by Bradshaw and Slonsky's account.

"What the Gretna police did was a crime against humanity," posted one reader of the story.

Lawson defends his decision.

"Officers were being met by hostile individuals," Lawson said. "It was a very tense situation."

He said public safety is what draws people to Gretna. Lawson suggested New Orleans' lack of planning contributed to the problems.

"Had there been a plan by the city of New Orleans, I don't think we'd be where we're at today," Lawson said. "We did right. We protected our citizens."

* * *

Two weeks later, porch lights in Gretna are coming on. Couples sit on their porches, listening to birds chirp. The lawn of the local Presbyterian church has been freshly cut.

The calamities Lawson feared never came. Signs praising Lawson dot roadsides.

"Thank you and God Bless Chief LAWSON & Gretna PD," reads a spray-painted piece of plywood, tied to a utility pole with a torn cable cord.

Many residents, black and white, support the chief.

Maple Malone, a 39-year-old black woman who has lived in Gretna since 1974, said she appreciates what Lawson did.

"The question you needed to ask those people on that bridge is, are you really coming here for comfort, or are you coming here for trouble?" Malone said.

Robbie Mundell, 33, said he chose to live in Gretna because the police keep him safe.

"I can leave for the weekend and keep my door open and not get robbed," said Mundell, who is white. "It's the last peaceful town around New Orleans."

* * *

Mayor Nagin said Gretna officials "will have to live with" the decision to close the bridge.

"We were fighting for our lives to save people, and every decision we made was based upon trying to move people to safety," Nagin said. "When we allowed people to cross the Crescent City Connection because people were dying in the convention center, that was a decision based upon people." Gretna, he said, "made a decision to protect property."

Lawson, 51, a law enforcement officer for 29 years, has been Gretna police chief since July. It's an elected post, and he was chosen without opposition.

The Gretna City Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting his decision to close the bridge.

"The people here know who I am," Lawson said.

Across the bridge, New Orleans can't figure him out.

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at 727 445-4160 or asharockman@sptimes.com

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