Confirmed: suburban cops turned back N.O. refugees

We recently aired first-hand accounts from paramedics in New Orleans that police from the suburb of Gretna had turned back refugees attempting to flee the devastated city at gunpoint. A Sept. 17 LA Times story, “A Roadblock to Compassion,” reprinted by New York Newsday, confirms that this was the case:

GRETNA, La. – The city council of this mostly white suburb – heavily criticized 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 – has passed a resolution supporting the police chief’s move.

“This wasn’t just one man’s decision,” Mayor Ronnie Harris said Thursday. “The whole community backs it.”

After Hurricane Katrina, Gretna police blocked the bridge over the Mississippi River that connects their city to New Orleans for several days, exacerbating the troubled relationship with their neighbor.

Gretna is two-thirds white. New Orleans is two-thirds black, and a perennial contender for the nation’s murder capital.

Gretna, which itself was deprived of power, water and food after Katrina struck, was overrun with thousands of people fleeing New Orleans. Officials commandeered buses and moved 5,000 to a food station miles away. As the number of evacuees spilling in grew, tensions rose. After arsonists set the local mall on fire, Police Chief Arthur Lawson proposed the blockade.

“I realized we couldn’t continue, manpower-wise, fuel-wise,” Lawson said Thursday.

Officers 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 stacked cars to block the roads into their parish. But Gretna’s decision has become the symbol of the ultimate act of a bad neighbor, gaining notoriety partly from of an account in the Socialist Worker newspaper.

Gretna officials have been deluged with angry e-mails accusing them of racism. On Thursday, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said Gretna officials “will have to live” with their decision.

“We made a decision to protect people,” he said. “… They made a decision to protect property.”

Paul Ribaul, 37, a Gretna native and New Orleans television engineer, was among many Gretna residents who praised the bridge closing. People from Gretna don’t live in New Orleans because “we don’t like the crime, the politics,” he said.

Critics have detected a racial motive, heatedly denied by most Gretna residents and city officials.

Some residents say privately they’re glad the city kept blacks out. Blacks in Gretna say that, though they get along with most of their white neighbors, a few harbor strong prejudices.

Still, Gretna’s black residents are also wary of people from New Orleans. “We don’t have as much killing over here,” said Lesley Anne Williams, 42.

“We didn’t even have enough food here to feed our own residents,” the mayor said. “We took care of our folks. It’s something we had to do.”

See our last post on Katrina’s aftermath.