Joe Baker: The sorry example of Gretna, La.

A not-so-heartwarming incident occurred in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This sad event belies the Bush administration claim that racism had nothing to do with relief efforts.

New Orleans officials told the frightened and beleaguered survivors three days after the storm to use the Gretna bridge over the Mississippi River to leave the flooded city. It was one of the last evacuation routes still open.

Gretna is a blue-collar town of 17,500, two-thirds white, which entertains a wary and fearful attitude toward its larger neighbor. It prides itself on the prompt response of its police department.

As the nearly exhausted mass of evacuees—mostly African American—began trudging across the Gretna bridge, it was confronted by armed officers of the Gretna police force, bridge police and sheriff’s deputies.

The blockade extended into Labor Day weekend, forcing the tired, hungry, wet and, in some cases, sick homeless to go back to the flooded city across the river. It should be said that Gretna did bus about 5,000 New Orleanians to a food distribution center many miles from the small town.

That was before someone set fire to the local mall Aug. 31 and the chief of police ordered the bridge blocked. Hundreds of men, women and children were turned back.

The Los Angeles Times reported about one week after that disgraceful performance the Gretna City Council adopted a resolution backing the police chief’s action.

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

Gretna was without power, water or food for several days after Katrina struck Aug. 29, but it suddenly was the destination for thousands of people fleeing New Orleans.

Police Chief Arthur S. Lawson Jr. tried to explain his actions. “I realized we couldn’t continue, manpower-wise, fuel-wise,” he said.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said Gretna officials “will have to live with their decision.”

“We allowed people to cross because they were dying in the convention center,” Nagin added. “We made a decision to protect people. They made a decision to protect property.”

Gretna was not the only community trying to keep out victims of the hurricane. St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans, stacked up cars to seal off roads leading into the city.

Town officials said when the storm knocked out their resources, they pleaded with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the state for help. It never came. Then, New Orleans told its victims to cross the bridge.

As the rejected survivors piled up at the foot of the Gretna bridge, the town’s officials said tensions began to mount. Then came the fire in the mall.

Mayor Harris called the state police.

“I said: ‘There will be bloodshed on the west bank if this continues. I am not going to give up our community,’” Harris told the Times.

Harris added: “We didn’t even have enough food to feed our own residents. We took care of our folks. It’s something we had to do.”

Mike Ruppert, publisher of From the Wilderness Publications, commented: “It is a lesson for all of us. As I continue to lift my eyes above the immediate horizon, I see choices like this soon coming at all of us. Will it be the unwashed of Phoenix fleeing to Scottsdale? The gay, lesbian and Democratic hordes of San Francisco fleeing north into Marin County? The under-educated poor of Boston heading toward Martha’s Vineyard or Vermont? Or will it be millions of Manhattanites and Washington office workers eyeing the Amish farmlands of Pennsylvania and Ohio?”

Ruppert concluded: “We are all only one hot, soothing shower away from being unwashed.”

From the Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2005, issue

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