- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

Among other unanswered questions after Hurricane Katrina, we have this: Why didn’t 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 mostly black evacuees tried to march across one of the last escape routes out of the flooded city, the Greater New Orleans Bridge. But they were turned back by gun-wielding police officers from suburban Gretna.

Authorities in St. Bernard Parish, to the east, also stacked cars to block roads from the city, according to news accounts. But Gretna’s decision gained the most notoriety after two eyewitnesses, 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 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 revisiting the story found another side. 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 one-third black. The town has a racially integrated police force and a black City Council member. He joined the rest in a unanimous resolution Sept. 15, supporting the police chief in blocking the bridge.

When the town lost power and water service like New Orleans after Katrina struck Aug. 29, officials turned unsuccessfully to the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Yet, when thousands of evacuees fled into the tiny town from New Orleans, the smaller town bused more than 5,000 on Aug. 31 to a hastily built food distribution center in another suburb.

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

Someone set a local mall on fire Aug. 31 and, as more crowds crossed the bridge, Gretna Police Chief Arthur S. Lawson Jr. proposed the blockade. Mayor Ronnie C. Harris backed him.

The result was the confrontation at the bridge, fraught with racial implications, but, at bottom, an ugly consequence of desperate people on two sides of a river, doing their best to survive under awful circumstances.

Who is to blame? There’s plenty of blame to go around at the federal, state or local level. The burden for their failures falls on the victims of the flood and those trying to help the victims, often heroically — until many became overwhelmed.

Whether and how race played a role at the bridge to Gretna will be argued forever. It is safe to say a potentially violent standoff occurred there between the desperately needy and those who felt they had no more to give. As with news images transmitted around the world from the Convention Center and the Superdome, New Orleans’ neediest were mostly black.

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

To answer satisfactorily the burning questions of what went wrong in Gretna and elsewhere in the hurricane zone, I think we need what the Republican Congress and President Bush have been reluctant to provide: an independent, bipartisan, multiracial commission similar to that for September 11.

A new report by the September 11 Commission chastises the government’s failure to follow its recommendations for improving communications between 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, the New Orleans communications breakdown led to breakdowns in law and order. The city and three neighboring parishes could not talk to each other because they used different equipment and frequencies. Helicopter crews couldn’t talk to rescuers in boats. New Orleans police and National Guard commanders in Mississippi had to use human couriers to carry messages.

An independent post-Katrina commission won’t satisfy everyone. Nothing will. But it can 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 strikes. Cities and suburbs have enough disputes to work out without waiting for a disaster to make things worse.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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