A suburban police chief is defending himself against accusations of racism for ordering the blockade of a bridge and turning back desperate hurricane victims.
Gretna, a town of 17,500 across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, was criticized after Police Chief Arthur Lawson Jr. ordered officers to block a bridge leading into the community, which is almost two-thirds white. New Orleans is two-thirds black.
Three days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Gretna officials learned that people trapped in downtown New Orleans were being told to cross the Crescent City Connection bridge.
Gretna officials organized a bus caravan to take 6,000 refugees to an evacuation center about 16 miles away. But they were quickly overwhelmed by people gathering near a mall just over the bridge.
Looting and a fire inside the mall convinced Lawson that his city, itself without power and water, could not handle the masses pouring in from New Orleans. He ordered rifle-carrying officers to block the bridge.
"We all of a sudden were receiving hundreds of people who were being told, 'If you cross over the bridge, there was food, shelter, water and buses,' which we had none of," Lawson said Thursday. "Basically, we had people thrust at our doorstep, and we were unprepared."
The Gretna City Council passed a resolution Thursday supporting Lawson's move.