- Police agencies south of New Orleans were so fearful
of the crowds attempting to leave the city after Hurricane Katrina that
they sealed a crucial bridge over the Mississippi River and turned back
hundreds of desperate evacuees, according to two paramedics who were in
- The paramedics and two other witnesses said officers
sometimes shot guns over the heads of fleeing people. The witnesses said
they had been told by New Orleans police to cross this same bridge because
buses were waiting for them there.
- Instead, a suburban police officer angrily ordered about
200 people to abandon an encampment between the highways near the bridge.
The officer then confiscated their food and water, the four witnesses said.
The incidents took place in the first days after the storm last week, they
- ``The police kept saying, `We don't want another Super
Dome,' and `This isn't New Orleans,' '' said Larry Bradshaw, a San Francisco
paramedic who was among those fleeing.
- Arthur Lawson, chief of the Gretna, La., police department,
confirmed that his officers, along with those from the Jefferson Parish
Sheriff's Office and the Crescent City Connection Police, sealed the bridge.
- ``As soon as things calm down, we will do an inquiry
and find out what happened,'' he said.
- Bradshaw and his partner, Lorrie Beth Slonsky, wrote
an account about their experiences that has been widely e-mailed.
- Cathey Golden, a 51-year-old from Boston, and her 13-year-old
son, Ramon Golden, on Friday confirmed the account.
- The four met at the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter.
Bradshaw and Slonsky had attended a convention for emergency medicine specialists.
Golden and her two children, including 23-year-old Rashida Golden, were
there to visit family.
- The hotel allowed its guests and nearly 250 residents
from the nearby neighborhood to stay until Thursday, Sept 1. With its food
exhausted, the hotel's manager finally instructed people to leave. Hotel
staff handed out maps to show the way to the city's Convention Center,
to which thousands of other evacuees had fled.
- A group of nearly 200 guests gathered to make their way
to the center together, the four said. But on the way, they heard that
the Convention Center had become a dangerous, unsanitary pit from which
no one was being evacuated. So they stopped in front of a New Orleans police
command post near the Harrah's casino on Canal Street.
- A New Orleans police commander whom none of the four
could identify told the crowd that they could not stay there and later
told them that buses were being brought to the Crescent City Connection,
a nearby bridge to Jefferson Parish, to carry them to safety.
- But on the bridge there were four police cruisers parked
across some lanes. Between six and eight officers stood with shotguns in
their hands, the witnesses said. As the crowd approached, the officers
shot over the heads of the crowd, most of whom retreated immediately, Bradshaw,
Slonsky and Golden and her son said.
- Police Made Their Storm Misery Worse
- Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, two San Francisco
paramedics trapped in New Orleans for five days last week, have a different
story to tell than many of the tales that have come out in the aftermath
of Hurricane Katrina.
- By their account, the cops weren't necessarily the good
guys, and it was crystal clear that most of the city government structure
collapsed along with the levees that left the city at the mercy of the
- When Hurricane Katrina hit Aug. 29, Bradshaw and his
longtime live-in girlfriend were at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans'
French Quarter, in town for a three-day paramedics conference at the convention
- After the storm died down the next day, they were among
500 people sheltered in hotels throughout the tourist district -- foreign
tourists, conference attendees and locals who'd checked in to ride out
- The stranded crowd stared at food and water locked in
a drugstore across the street from the hotel only to be shooed away by
police officers whenever anyone approached the store. Finally, after hours
of cat and mouse, the crowd finally broke into the store.
- "At that point, we had not seen any of the TV coverage
or looked at a newspaper, but we guessed there were no video images of
European and white tourists, like us, looting the Walgreens in the French
Quarter,'' the couple wrote in an eight-page account of their experience.
- When it became clear that the help they so desperately
needed was not coming anytime soon, the group pooled their resources in
an effort to buy their way out of the surrounding hell. They ponied up
$25,000, enough to lease 10 buses that would carry them out of the city.
- But as the buses they paid for approached the city, they
were immediately commandeered by the National Guard forces that were in
New Orleans, Bradshaw and Slonsky said Thursday in an interview back home.
- "If they used the buses to get the most severely
ill out of the Superdome and convention center, I have no problem with
that,'' Bradshaw said. "The thing that gets me is that if we could
get on the phone and get 10 buses, why couldn't FEMA make that call?''
- With no food, no water and no transportation out of the
city, about 200 of the former hotel guests wandered the streets and tried
to set up a camp next to a police command center on Canal Street, where
they hoped to get aid, protection and information, the couple said.
- But officers told them they couldn't stay, they had no
water for them, and they needed to get up on Highway 90, a bridge that
spans the Mississippi River, and walk until they saw the rescue buses they
promised would be waiting for them.
- So late Wednesday afternoon, the group set out for a
bridge called the Crescent City Connection, where they would find the help
they so desperately needed. But when they arrived atop the highway, the
paramedics said, they were met by more police officers, this time from
neighboring Gretna, La., who weren't letting anyone pass.
- "If I weren't there, and hadn't witnessed it for
myself, I don't think I would have ever believed this," Bradshaw said.
- The officers fired warning shots into the air and then
leveled their weapons at members of the crowd, Bradshaw said. He approached,
hands in the air, displaying his paramedic's badge.
- "They told us that there would be no Superdomes
in their city,'' the couple wrote. "These were code words that if
you are poor and black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River -- and
you weren't getting out of New Orleans.''
- And when exhausted hurricane victims set up temporary
shelters on the highway, Gretna police came back a few hours later, fired
shots into the air again, told people to "get the f -- off the bridge"
and used a helicopter to blow down all the makeshift shelters, the paramedics
- When the officers had pushed the crowd back far enough,
one of them took the group's food and water, dropped it in the trunk of
a patrol car and drove away.
- Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson confirmed that his
officers were under his orders to seal off the suburban city of 17,500
- "We had individuals bused into Gretna and dropped
off, and we had no idea they were coming. No one ever called us -- we have
no shelter in Gretna, and our citizens were under a mandatory evacuation.
This place was already locked down.''
- The few buses that did show up received much the same
treatment as Bradshaw, Slonsky and their compatriots: Gretna police officers
did not allow anyone off the buses, and like their brothers in blue across
the river, they sent them packing.
- Police officers in Gretna also went into the city's lone
sporting goods store and pawn shop and removed more than 1,400 weapons
from the shelves to ensure the public safety, Lawson said.
- Throughout the ordeal, Slonsky said members of the group
they camped with became a community that helped each other, shared with
each other and, in the end, relied on each other for their very survival.
- The San Francisco paramedics were finally airlifted Friday
to San Antonio, where they endured another couple of days in cramped conditions
while they were examined for disease before being released.
- "We got out of there with only the clothes on our
back,'' Bradshaw said. "And the money in my underwear,'' added Slonsky.
- ©2005 San Francisco Chronicle