2006Public Service

Bridge exposes racial divide

Gretna police stand by decision to block evacuees
By: 
Matthew Brown
West Bank bureau
September 22, 2005

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When the Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center deteriorated into anarchy and food and water ran short, many who tried to escape the flooded streets of New Orleans found their paths blocked.

Gretna police fired shots over the heads of evacuees streaming across the Crescent City Connection, as bullhorns blared for them to go back to New Orleans.

In Plaquemines Parish, dozens of sheriff's deputies raised shotguns and pistols to turn back a convoy of school buses attempting to take storm victims to safety at the Naval Air Station- Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse.

And in Westwego, arriving evacuees had two choices: Leave immediately, or go to an overcrowded shelter with few supplies where armed guards accompanied by a police dog prevented anyone from leaving.

The confrontations occurred largely along racial lines: African- American residents of poor sections of New Orleans facing off against majority white law enforcement agencies.

Elected law enforcement officials remain unapologetic over their response and say they would take the same steps if the city flooded again.

"If you are in your house and they're rioting all around to get in, are you going to let them in?" asked Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson. "We saved our city and protected our people. Our plan worked and we're going to stick with our plan. Next hurricane, we're going to secure our city the same way."

Lawson added that evacuees "actually would have been better off where they were, because we didn't have anything for them."

He said his city of 17,000 was overwhelmed with its own problems at the time: flooded neighborhoods, a barge that damaged the Mississippi River levee, and the daily task of feeding 800 city employees and other emergency personnel. Officials from Plaquemines and Westwego also said their own problems were too great for them to shoulder someone else's.

But New Orleans elected officials bristle at the suggestion they should have kept residents in the city. While acknowledging their own preparations came up far short, they say getting people out quickly after supplies ran short became the only option.

"If he (Lawson) is saying they would do the same thing over again, is he saying the same woman who died on the ramp because she couldn't get over the bridge, is he saying he would let that woman die again?" said City Council President Oliver Thomas. "I don't think he's thinking that. I think he's talking political. He's just trying to make white folks in Gretna think he's protecting them from all those poor black people from New Orleans."

Lawson insists he would have taken identical measures "if it had been any ethnic group" coming into his city.

The chief's stance has turned him into a folk hero among his constituents. Signs nailed to telephone poles and planted in highway medians proclaim "Thank you and God bless Chief Lawson" and "Balls is spelled Arthur Lawson."

Sitting on the front steps of her shotgun-style house on Monroe Street, just a few paces from where Gretna police had placed barricades to keep out New Orleans residents, city resident Ida Koenig offered a more mixed reaction.

"If they were stopping looters, God bless 'em. But maybe it was just people getting out of harm's way," said Koenig, 59. "The good suffered for the bad."

But Walter Maestri, Jefferson Parish Emergency Management director, said West Bank law enforcement was justified in its aggressive reaction, particularly given the partial burning of the Oakwood Shopping Center on Aug. 30.

The fire, attributed to arson, occurred across the street from a bus stop where thousands of displaced New Orleans residents - primarily women and children - had been cordoned off by Gretna police and Jefferson Parish sheriff's deputies.

"That was the fear -- these people that came out of the Superdome, they had no food, no water. They were desperate and, let's be honest, there were some thugs among them," Maestri said.

Westwego Chief Dwayne "Poncho" Munch said at one point a call came over the police radio warning of "400 to 500 looters coming down the (West Bank) Expressway toward Westwego."

That marauding army never arrived, and most looting turned out to be homegrown.

This week, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office reported 266 looting arrests since Aug. 29. That included 110 residents of the parish's East Bank, 111 from the West Bank and three from out of state. The remaining 42 - about 16 percent of the total - were from New Orleans, said sheriff's spokesman Col. John Fortunato.

Lawson said few, if any, of the 50 people arrested for looting in Gretna came from other jurisdictions.

"We were not herding criminals, for God's sake," said New Orleans Councilwoman Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, referring to the city's attempt to march people across the Crescent City Connection on foot after evacuation buses were delayed. "We were sending poor, honest, distressed people who should have been picked up 48 hours earlier."

But both Lawson and Munch attributed the low numbers of New Orleans looters to locking down their cities. "The sh-- got deep when all those people were coming through on that Wednesday and Thursday," Munch said. "If you wasn't here, shut your mouth, because you don't know."

In Plaquemines Parish, Sheriff Jiff Hingle said he was forced to turn back the school bus convoy headed for the Naval Air Station because the evacuees "would have become our problem."

"All they were going to do was end up destroying my community," he said. "I feel very, very sorry for them. But they would put such a burden on us that we would collapse.''

John Pine, director of the disaster science and management program at Louisiana State University, said the actions on the West Bank underscore how ill-prepared the entire region was for the disaster.

"People are raising a lot of questions about race and class discrimination," he said. "In the law, there's two forms of discrimination: One is intentional. One is unintentional. "I look at this situation and see it's not so much the intent of the decision- makers. It just worked out that way."

But Pine added that the images played out in the media - poor minorities struggling to survive in the face of floodwaters and hostility from their neighbors - have left a mark that will be hard to erase.

"Our state is embarrassed," Pine said.

Public Service 2006