A bridge too far

September 23, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Among many unanswered questions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, we have this one: Why didn't the stranded residents of flooded New Orleans simply walk to dry land? For many, the answer was simple and disturbing: The suburbs wouldn't let them.

Three long days after the hurricane hit, thousands of evacuees, mostly black, tried to march across one of the last escape routes out of the city, the Greater New Orleans Bridge. But they were turned back by gun-wielding police officers from suburban Gretna, La.

Authorities in St. Bernard Parish, La., to the east, stacked cars to block off roads from the city, according to news accounts. But Gretna's decision gained the most notoriety after two witnesses, San Francisco paramedics caught in the bridge confrontation, reported it on a Socialist Worker Web site.

Internet chatter, angered by the ugly implications of a mostly white town blocking the path of mostly black evacuees, quickly spread the story as an outrageous allegory about race, bureaucratic bungling and the eternal tensions between cities and suburbs.

But here, as with many stories about race these days, truth gets in the way of a good allegory. Mainstream media revisited the story and found another side to it. Questionable as their tactics might have been, the suburbanites were not as racially evil as they initially seemed.

Gretna's population of 17,500 is about a third black. The town has a racially integrated police force and a black City Council member. That council member joined his colleagues in passing a unanimous resolution supporting the police chief's move to block the bridge.

When the town lost power and water, like New Orleans, after Katrina struck Aug. 29, town officials turned without success to the state and to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Yet when thousands of evacuees fled to Gretna, the town bused more than 5,000 of them Aug. 31 to a hastily constructed food-distribution center in another suburb.

When growing crowds crossed the bridge after being stuck for days in New Orleans' Convention Center without food, water and working toilets, New Orleans officials began telling others to cross the bridge, too. Gretna officials, upset at this apparent unfunded mandate imposed on them by the big city, began to feel overwhelmed, they say.

Gretna Police Chief Arthur S. Lawson Jr. proposed the blockade. Mayor Ronnie C. Harris backed him up. The result was the confrontation at the bridge, fraught with racial implications.

Whether and how race played a role at the bridge to Gretna will be argued forever. But it is safe to say that a potentially violent standoff occurred between the desperately needy and those who had tried to help, often heroically, but believed they had no more to give.

Imposing racial explanations too quickly impairs our ability to focus on other explanations that might be closer to the truth.

To answer satisfactorily the burning questions of what went wrong in Gretna and elsewhere in the hurricane zone, we need what the Republican Congress and President Bush have been reluctant to give: an independent, bipartisan, multiracial commission similar to the panel responsible for investigating 9/11.

A new report by the 9/11 commission chastises the government's failure to follow its recommendations for improving communications among police, firefighters and other first responders. Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, the commission's former chairman and vice chairman, respectively, called it scandalous that, for example, New Orleans' breakdown in communications led to breakdowns in law and order.

An independent post-Katrina commission wouldn't satisfy everyone. Nothing would. But it could help authorities at all levels of government avoid making the same mistakes again.

No one can anticipate every disaster, but we should at least be able to respond quickly after disaster happens. Cities and suburbs have enough disputes to work out without waiting for a disaster to make things worse.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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