By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 9/22/2005 12:52:37 PM ET 2005-09-22T16:52:37

Three weeks after Gretna, La., became a lightening rod of controversy when city officials ordered armed law enforcement officers to blockade a main escape route from New Orleans, effectively trapping thousands of people trying to flee the post-Hurricane Katrina horrors festering in the Big Easy, Gretna’s mayor is defending the action.

“It was the right thing to do at the time,” Mayor Ronnie Harris said.  And to underscore that fact and perhaps take a little political heat off Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson, the Gretna City Council just passed a resolution supporting the move to block the bridge. 

Blockading the bridge “wasn’t a unilateral decision by the city of Gretna,” Harris said, “but by a joint decision between the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s office, the city of Gretna and the Crescent City Connection police, which is a division of the state department of transportation.”

On Sept. 1, three days after Katrina left her mark on the region, the blockade went into effect and stayed there until Labor Day. A group of evacuees, numbering in the hundreds, having managed to navigate the chaos that had engulfed New Orleans, were turned back while trying to cross the bridge to Gretna. Two San Francisco paramedics, who had been trapped in the city when the hurricane hit, were among that crowd. The paramedics chronicled their plight in a story for the Socialist Worker newspaper, saying that the police abruptly turned the crowd away and even fired their weapons above their heads to underscore the point.

The paramedics allege that racism was at the heart of the action owing to the fact that the crowd was predominately black.

For weeks now, since the paramedics’ story entered the slipstream of main stream media, the portrait of Gretna officials has been painted in the broad strokes of racism and callousness. 

That’s a strong salvo to fire at this community, where nearly four of every ten residents are black, five are white and the remaining one is in an ethnic category the Census Bureau likes to call “other.” The median household income in the city is $28,000 a year. 

“The charges of racism in my community are absolutely off the mark, absolutely rubbish and that’s a nice way for me to say it, OK?” Harris said, his voice rising on the phone.

Harris has spoken to so many reporters, explained his position so many times, that he no longer speaks in sentences but in “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” run-on paragraphs, as if to make it harder for a reporter to slice up his story in nice, out-of-context sound bites.

Blockade the city to save it
The blockade of Gretna happened well before the bridge was closed. Gretna police blocked exits into and out of the city as Katrina’s winds died out on Monday, and on those roads where no police presence was possible, the city rolled abandoned vehicles across the lanes to block movement.

“That was part of our plan, that we were going to contain our borders to make sure that that property within it was complete.," Harris said. "And if you had business in Gretna it was because you lived in Gretna.”

Like New Orleans, Gretna was pummeled by Katrina. The city lost power, water and sewer facilities. They had no shelters, no food no water and no capacity to take evacuees, Harris said. There was never a call from New Orleans that people were coming; there was never any plan to take them, Harris said.

But still they came, by the thousands, fleeing New Orleans, across the bridge.  By Wednesday as many as 6,000 evacuees had massed in Gretna, Harris said. Gretna officials were commandeering buses “and for the next 12 to 14 hours began round trip shuttle service to Interstate 10 and Causeway (where there was a FEMA evacuation site),” Harris said. “Now that wasn’t our duty, that wasn’t our responsibility but that’s what we did.”

And at some point on Wednesday the lawlessness started.  Nine stores inside the Oakwood mall were burned and looted, Harris said. Gretna police were fired on and roving gangs were going house to house “literally knocking on doors, holding guns in the faces of residents and saying ‘give us your cash, your jewelry and your car keys,’” the mayor said. 

Undoubtedly there were good people just trying to escape, find safety and shelter, Harris said,  but the crowd had a “criminal element” that had to be considered. 

And that’s when the decision was made to block passage across the bridge.

“So the action taken was because we were not designated as a shelter, we were not designated as an evacuation route, we had no running water, we had no electricity, we had no food, OK?  We had no sewer system. So I don’t know what all these people were planning on getting on when they came over here because every building in my department was damaged.  A hurricane hit us, too,” Harris said, barely taking a breath.  “Quite frankly we’re tired of answering the same questions over and over again.”

Though New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has denounced the blockade by Gretna in televised interviews, he still hasn’t returned the calls from Harris to talk about what happened; to talk about next time.

Mayor Harris apologizes for “monopolizing” the conversation with a reporter “but you did call me,” he said.

Harris is just beginning to pick up the pieces of his city while deflecting damning criticism. And he’s still waiting for that phone call from New Orleans and hoping there wont’ be yet another dance with reporters.

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