Police made their storm misery worse
By CHIP JOHNSON
(9 September 2005) -- 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 rising waters.
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 center.
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 storm.
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 said.
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 residents.
"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.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, Page B - 1
*Chip Johnson's column appears on Mondays and Fridays. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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