Evacuees Were Turned Away at Gretna, La.

Three days after Hurricane Katrina struck, authorities blocked the road that connects the city of Gretna to New Orleans. Thousands of evacuees say they were prevented from escaping the flooding and chaos, and that shots were fired over their heads.

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Some Katrina survivors in New Orleans say they tried to evacuate the city but the primary route out was blocked. Evacuees say police officers in Gretna turned them away and fired shots over their heads. Gretna city officials say that's not the whole story, as NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

On Thursday, September 1st, the third day after Katrina, Jill Johnston(ph) and a group of bedraggled Canadian tourists plodded through downtown New Orleans pulling carry-on suitcases behind them. She's a health care executive from Saskatchewan who was vacationing in this French-accented city when the killer storm hit. At the moment of this interview, they had just returned from a terrifying encounter at the top of the 3,000-foot long bridge that spans the Mississippi.

Ms. JILL JOHNSTON (Canadian Tourist): They told us...

Unidentified Man: She told us.

Ms. JOHNSTON: ...walk across the bridge--over the Crescent City bridge...

Unidentified Woman: ...(Unintelligible) connection.

Ms. JOHNSTON: ...there are buses waiting for you on the other side. We all walk the five or so miles up onto the bridge and the police start shooting at us.

BURNETT: Her story confirms elements of a similar account widely circulated on the Internet that happened to a group of 200 evacuees that included people in wheelchairs and babies in strollers. Larry Bradshaw, a paramedic with the San Francisco Fire Department in town for a trade show, told NPR that they, too, had hiked up to the bridge expecting buses only to have an officer from the Gretna Police Department shoot over their heads. Bradshaw said one policeman told the group, `We're not going to have another Superdome down here,' referring to the violence and squalor inside the arena-turned-shelter. In the days since the bridge incidents, Gretna city officials have been vilified for what critics call the callous and racist action. City officials emphatically defend themselves and ask that their side be heard.

Chief ARTHUR LAWSON Jr. (Gretna Police Department): I'm very pissed off.

BURNETT: Arthur Lawson Jr. is police chief of Gretna.

Chief LAWSON: I am, because I've been painted as a racist and this community's good reputation has been blemished because of something that we did because the city of New Orleans was ill-prepared to handle the situation that they had and expected us to evacuate their city without any preparation, without any notice, without any contact.

BURNETT: In the days after Katrina, thousands of evacuees trudged across the bridge and stopped right here at the corner of Whitney Road and the West Bank Expressway near a blown-out high-rise hotel and the Conquering Word Christian Academy. Gretna is a three-and-a-half square mile community founded by German immigrants. It sits directly across the river from New Orleans. The reason this little city was drawn into the frantic evacuation of New Orleans is because it has one of the first exits after the Crescent City connection bridge. But Chief Lawson says his city of fewer than 18,000 was completely unprepared for the onslaught.

Chief LAWSON: We were not contacted by anybody in the city of New Orleans--police or city officials--prior to, during or since the storm. No one called us and said, `Can you handle these people? Can you help?'

BURNETT: When the chief sealed the bridge, it prompted accusations of racial prejudice because his tiny city is largely white and the faces of most fleeing storm survivors were black. But Lawson explains that initially, Gretna police commandeered buses and used them to ferry more than 5,000 evacuees to a rescue site. But more and more kept coming, and after a day of this shuttling, he says his small police force became overwhelmed. This at a time when he had his own problems. They feared the mighty Mississippi would come roaring over his levee at any minute. Sheriff Harry Lee, whose jurisdiction of Jefferson Parish neighbors New Orleans and encompasses Gretna, echoes Lawson's frustration.

Sheriff HARRY LEE (Jefferson Parish): FEMA didn't have any food for those people in Gretna. They didn't give me any food. I didn't have any water. My obligation is to the people of Jefferson Parish.

BURNETT: Gretna officials grew more alarmed when vandals broke into and set fire to a nearby mall just across the city line. Though no arrests have been made, authorities blame hooligans from New Orleans. It was the day after the mall fire that officers from Gretna, Jefferson Parish and the bridge police shut down both spans of the giant cantilever bridge to all pedestrian traffic; only vehicles were allowed to pass. New Orleans officials have felt shock and anger over the decision to blockade the bridge. Condemning the closing, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin stated the Gretna officials would have to live with their decision. Jacqueline Clarkson is a long-time New Orleans city council member whose district borders Gretna. She regrets that all the needy storm evacuees suffered for the actions of a handful of marauders.

Ms. JACQUELINE CLARKSON (New Orleans City Council Member): There was a handful of thugs that took this unfortunate opportunity to seize control and lead this into a horrible situation. That should not have been misinterpreted that all 20,000 people were coming to loot and raid and rob Jefferson Parish.

BURNETT: Last week, as criticism grew, the Gretna city council unanimously passed a resolution supporting the police chief's decision. Today, hand-painted plywood signs have appeared throughout the city with messages like, `thank you' and `God bless Chief Lawson.'

Judy Burchette(ph), a Gretna resident who works at an attorney's office, was out raking debris in front of her house. She says of the decision to close the bridge...

Ms. JUDY BURCHETTE (Gretna Resident): We were ecstatic. They were looting and they were shooting, and we didn't want that over here. I had my two small children and we were scared to death. And thank God for the city of Gretna because they took care of us.

BURNETT: Gretna is 40 percent black. The city's lone black city council member backed the closing of the bridge. Seventy-nine-year-old Earl Jackson, a retired pipe yard worker, did not support the chief.

Mr. EARL JACKSON (Gretna Resident): It was the wrong thing. It was the wrong thing to do. It was the wrong thing to do and people trying to get across the bridge so--or to catch a ride to get to Texas was--nobody could go.

BURNETT: Both Chief Arthur Lawson and Sheriff Harry Lee say they would make the same decisions if they had to do it over again. The Gretna chief says he's now investigating whether his men were justified in firing over the heads of evacuees. Chief Lawson would like to know: Without communication, food, water, enough buses and gasoline how long would it take another American city to reach the limits of its compassion? And New Orleans officials would like to know how exactly were their citizens supposed to escape their drowned city? John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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