It's been all over the Internet, and then all over cable news -- the story of the two San Francisco paramedics and the crowd of evacuees that followed them as they heeded the advice of a New Orleans police officer to cross the bridge over the Mississippi for safe haven, and the gun-shooting response of police from Gretna, the city on the other side, blocking the bridge and preventing them from crossing. Here's the official response of the mayor of Gretna to that story:
A month ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated the City of Gretna, leaving no building undamaged. It was a city without electricity, running water or sewerage. Debris and fallen trees blocked roads and downed electric lines created safety hazards everywhere. Roofing nails disabled many patrol cars and limited police response. No shelters or medical services were available. During the height of the storm, a dry dock, with a tugboat in its hold, broke its moorings and drifted menacingly upriver for two miles before it hit a diesel supply ship, spilling its 58,000 gallons into the Mississippi River with waves washing much of it into our city. Gretna was far from being a safe haven.
Of the normal 17,500 residents, it was estimated that four to five thousand remained during the storm. A diverse population of White, African-American, Hispanic and Asians, much like that of New Orleans, was left with the little provisions that they were warned to stock beforehand. Our efforts to have FEMA supply food, water and ice were not met for a full five days after the storm.
On Monday, with storm winds still blowing, looters within our city were arrested and, according to our disaster response plan, the Gretna Police Department sealed our city limits and prevented anyone from entering for obvious reasons of safety and security.
Tuesday was the first clear weather day that presented the nation with pictures of flooding, looting, arson and reports of rape in New Orleans. In Gretna, as officials evaluated the damages of Katrina, buses of RTA drivers and their families were dropped off without any notice into our city. Hours later, after Gretna provided portalets and a bottle of water for each person, the RTA provided their own buses and evacuated to Baton Rouge, but this was not a signal of what was to come.
Late in the day on Wednesday, a flow of people from New Orleans began to cross the Crescent City Connection on foot. They were told that food, water, safety and shelter could be found on the Westbank. Unbelievably, the Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, was instructing people to cross the bridge; however he did not tell Gretna officials of his actions. With a crowd massing, Gretna police officers commandeered Westside Transit buses and began the arduous task of transporting busloads of people down the Westbank Expressway to the Huey P. Long Bridge and to safety at I-10 and Causeway, the FEMA approved evacuation point. It is estimated that approximately 6,000 evacuees were transported by the Gretna Police Department over a period of 12 to 14 hours without a death or injury reported. A fact overlooked by the national media.
Oakwood Mall was looted and burned on Wednesday. By mid-morning on Thursday, with overwhelming numbers at the foot of the Westbank Expressway, a joint decision was made by the City of Gretna Police Department, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office and the Crescent City Connection Bridge Police that the Bridge had to be closed for the safety of all. Outside of the City of Gretna, there were reports of gun-wielding criminals who demanded cash, jewelry and car keys. With law enforcement present, order is expected, without it, terror reigns.
Although our investigation of the bridge incident is not complete, initial reports revealed that a warning shot was fired when the crowd became unruly and the safety of the officer was threatened. What the crowd and police officers said that night we may never know. What was clear, however, was that the decision to close the bridge was made because there was no safety for the evacuees on the Westbank. No buses, no food, no shelter, nothing.
In Katrina's aftermath, Gretna has been unfairly charged of racism. Our residents, as well as the New Orleans evacuees, were black, white and other ethnic backgrounds. All expected protection, safety, food and water. Gretna did not have the capacity to support its own residents much less the thousands who were told otherwise. What was the New Orleans plan? Is it racism to not have a plan? Is it racism to say that food, water and safe haven were "just over that bridge"?
It has been four weeks and we are still trying to recover. City services have been restored but we are feeding people through food distribution centers. At first, it took constant pleading to FEMA and the State of Louisiana to provide food, water and ice to Gretna's residents. During this past month, cities across the state and nation have responded with equipment, supplies and labor. Faith based organizations have contributed hundreds of volunteers and tons of supplies benefiting not only our people but also our neighboring jurisdictions. The dedication of city, police, fire and emergency workers was above and beyond measure. It's disappointing to hear that the national and local media is accusing a good community of racism when the charge is simply untrue.
Safety and security, a city infrastructure and eventually a business community are all elements needed in rebuilding our metropolitan area. In Gretna, we have that ability because of the action that was taken after the storm.
Perhaps it was a lack of communication or cooperation, or just a lack of common sense management that Mayor Ray Nagin and other officials of New Orleans demonstrated when they sent New Orleans evacuees to a neighboring city without notice, without knowing our capabilities and without a plan. In the future, in the event of a disaster, New Orleans city leaders have a duty, a responsibility, and a moral obligation to communicate completely and consistently with their neighboring cities and parishes, and we, as neighbors must do the same. It is not just a matter of protocol but of essential public safety.
Ronnie C. Harris
Mayor, City of Gretna