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Friday, September 16, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gretna's officials: no regrets

Los Angeles Times

GRETNA, La. — Little more than a week after this mostly white suburb's police officers sealed one of the last escape routes from New Orleans — trapping thousands of mostly black evacuees in the flooded city — the Gretna City Council passed a resolution supporting the move.

"This wasn't just one man's decision," Mayor Ronnie Harris said yesterday. "The whole community backs it."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Gretna officers blocked the bridge over the Mississippi River that connects their city to New Orleans. Gretna (pop. 17,500) is a stubborn blue-collar city, two-thirds white, that warily eyes its neighbor, a two-thirds black city that is also a perennial contender for the murder capital of the United States.

Deprived of power, water and food for days after Katrina struck, Gretna was suddenly flooded with thousands of people fleeing New Orleans. The smaller town commandeered buses and moved more than 5,000 to a food station miles away. As the number of evacuees grew, tensions rose. After arsonists set the local mall on fire, Police Chief Arthur Lawson proposed the blockade.

"I realized we couldn't continue, manpower-wise, fuel-wise," Lawson said yesterday.

Authorities in St. Bernard Parish, to the south, stacked cars to seal the roads from the Crescent City into their parish. But Gretna's decision has become the symbol of the ultimate act of a bad neighbor.

Gretna officials have been deluged with angry e-mails, accusing them of racism.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin yesterday said Gretna officials "will have to live" with their decision.

Some Gretna residents say privately they're glad the city kept blacks out. Blacks in Gretna say that, though they get along with most of their white neighbors, a few harbor strong prejudices.

Still, Gretna's black residents are also wary of New Orleans.

"We don't have as much killing over here," said Lesley Anne Williams, 42. Williams' mother, a lifelong Gretna resident, nonetheless disapproved of the police action.

"They probably had a better chance of survival over here," she said, "especially with all that shooting" in New Orleans.

When Katrina hit Gretna, about 4,000 to 5,000 of the town's residents did not evacuate. Like New Orleans, Gretna lost power and water after Katrina hit. City officials pleaded for help from the state and FEMA but got no response.

"We didn't even have enough food here to feed our own residents," Harris said. "We took care of our folks. It's something we had to do."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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