Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana at 6:10 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005. Within hours, the catastrophic collapse of levees would cause water to pour into New Orleans. Within days, New Orleans would be 80 percent covered in water.
A group of around 300 were trapped by the rising water in the headquarters of the city’s Regional Transit Authority. Their numbers included around 100 RTA workers who had volunteered to remain in New Orleans — the bus drivers needed to transport people to the Superdome on the Sunday before Katrina struck the New Orleans area, and the staff they would need to resume transit service once the winds died. The remainder were family members and friends who had hunkered down in the “Canal Street barn,” a seemingly secure brick edifice in a part of town that never flooded.
By Tuesday morning, the building’s emergency generator was submerged, rendering it useless. They were low on food and almost out of water. People were given an option: remain in the building and hope the authorities would be able to find the boats to transport them to safety, or walk across the Crescent City Connection — the Mississippi River bridge, as locals tend to call it — which would bring them to dry land on the other side the river.
This excerpt is from "Katrina: After the Flood" by Gary Rivlin, which was published this month.
A little past noon on Tuesday, August 30, 2005, the first RTA employees and their relatives—who had been sheltering at the agency’s headquarters on Canal Street—dropped into the dark, murky waters that were chest high on a six-foot man. Around two-thirds of their group—two hundred people—chose to walk rather than remain. Children were hoisted on air mattresses, along with most everyone standing under maybe five feet five inches tall. Those tall enough to walk sloshed through the smelly, oily water, guiding the others on the makeshift rafts.
The temperature was in the nineties and the humidity high. From the interstate they had an expansive view of watery New Orleans—a perfect vantage point for contemplating a drowned-out home. The bridge ahead led to Algiers, the New Orleans neighborhood on the other side of the Mississippi. Only later did they appreciate that it was also the route to white-flight suburbs such as Gretna, the first town they would reach once they had crossed the Crescent City Connection. At least one of them was in a wheelchair, and their ranks included grandmothers, toddlers, and several police officers. None seemed to be thinking about what it meant that theirs was an almost all-black group heading into a predominantly white community.
A bus driver named Malcolm Butler and his wife, Dorothy, were among the first to notice the blockade. Initially, Malcolm Butler thought his eyes were playing tricks on him in the hot, midday sun. Butler was set to retire, after thirty-three years on the job, on August 31—the next day. Their home in New Orleans East had most certainly flooded. Butler, who is not tall, had walked through greasy water up to his neck, his nose and chin pointed upward, guiding Dorothy, who clung to an air mattress. They had probably been on the interstate for less than an hour when Butler stopped and asked Dorothy if she was seeing what he was: a pair of police officers brandishing weapons, blocking their passage. “They was standing up there with their automobiles blocking the bridge with shotguns and M16s and told us we couldn’t go no further,” Butler recalled.
Wilfred Eddington, the police officer assigned to walk point as they headed toward the West Bank, figured he was around one thousand yards from the foot of the bridge when he saw the two police cars parked nose to nose, forming a wedge to block their passage. Eventually, he heard them yelling, “Go back! Go back! Get off the bridge!” He noticed their black uniforms—they were members of the small force responsible for policing the bridge.
“They was standing up there with their
automobiles blocking the bridge with shotguns and M16s and told us we couldn’t go no further.”
– Malcolm Butler
Eddington was dressed in jeans but wearing a dark T-shirt stamped with the word POLICE in large letters. He wore a holstered gun on his belt. He asked the others to slow down while he approached his counterparts. The smaller of the two bridge cops, a young black woman, didn’t seem to care what it said on Eddington’s shirt. The closer he got, the louder she seemed to scream. “She was out of control,” Eddington said. “She was irate.”
“You gotta bring it down a few notches,” Eddington said, looking at the female officer. He was a cop with two decades on the job, counseling a less experienced officer. “But she remained belligerent,” Eddington said.
Ruben Stephens, a lieutenant in the New Orleans Police Department who headed up the transit agency’s police unit, jogged up from the back of the ranks. He introduced himself and explained that a group of city workers on duty at the time of the storm had gotten trapped by the flooding. They were only trying to reach their facility in Algiers, where some buses would be picking them up.
“You’re not crossing my damn bridge,” the female officer responded.
“You better get your rank,” Stephens snapped.
“Pedestrians are not permitted on the bridge at any time!” she countered, as if this was any other Tuesday.
“She was hollering, ‘I lost my house, I lost everything,’” Wilfred Eddington said. But she was also adamant. “You all ain’t going nowhere,” she repeated.
At the back of the line, Sharon Paul, a 54-year-old RTA dispatcher, looked uncomprehendingly at the police cruisers parked to block their way until someone told her, “Police say we can’t cross.”
“Don’t they know we’ve got water where we came from?”
A supervisor for the bridge police arrived at the scene. So did Gerald Robichaux, the RTA’s deputy manager for operations, who had been preoccupied with tending to those at the back of the line needing help. A stalemate lasting between thirty and sixty minutes ended when several suburban-line commuter buses arrived to pick them up at the foot of the bridge. For the moment, everything seemed a crazy misunderstanding, and the RTA people boarded the buses. Sitting at the front of the bus, Lieutenant Stephens assumed they were heading to the RTA’s park ‘n’ ride in Algiers. The coaches had instead brought them to the bus depot in suburban Gretna.
Stephens heard the Gretna police officers before he saw them. “Don’t get off that bus,” they barked. “Don’t get off the damn bus.” Stephens stepped down the stairs, thinking he could talk to them, cop to cop. “I’m a police lieutenant,” he tried to say. But they were yelling too loud to hear him. Each pointed a weapon at him.
“Where the fuck y’all think you’re going with all these people?”
“Who the fuck told y’all to bring these people here?”
“Y’all need to get the hell out of here.”
Stephens had grown up in the Desire housing project in New Orleans’ Upper Ninth Ward. He had served in the Army and worn a police uniform for more than two decades. He had probably five or six feet of water sitting in the modest place he owned in New Orleans East—a single-story ranch home—which guaranteed that most everything he owned had been ruined. “I ain’t going nowhere,” Lieutenant Stephens said. He had a gun strapped to his belt and told himself he was ready to use it, if necessary. “I feared one of them might start shooting,” Stephens said, “and then you’d have a massacre.”
People walked off the bus, despite the threats. Gail Davis, a 53-year-old grandmother whose husband, Woodrow, worked for the RTA, was on that first bus with her daughter and three grandchildren. Davis found herself staring at guns as she got off the bus. “They was putting them in our faces and saying, ‘If you move, if you breathe, we’re going to shoot you,’” Davis said. “I’m trying to hold on to my grandchildren because they was nine, ten, eleven years old.”
The second and third buses pulled up, and they, too, disgorged their passengers there at the Gretna bus terminal. On her bus, said Sharon Paul, the dispatcher, people felt a sense of relief when out the window they saw all the police. “We really thought they was coming to assist us,” Paul said. And why not? Gretna, a town of 18,000 whose official motto is “Small City, Big Heart,” had lost electricity but still had plenty of food and water on stock. Its roads were passable, providing people a path to safety. Paul said she heard one cop yell, “Get on the curb now or we’re gonna shoot,” but she couldn’t take the command seriously. “They cocked their guns,” Paul said, “and then everybody paid attention.”
Gretna police officer Dwight Dorsey was on patrol when he heard a staticky message over the emergency channel available to all first responders in the area. “It was a call for assistance over the radio saying that they had a large group of subjects loitering,” Dorsey said. Dorsey says six to eight police cars were at the Gretna bus terminal that afternoon. Mary Ann Ruth, a casino cashier who had been on the first bus, said at least ten cops were watching over their klatch of grandmothers, children, and civil-service lifers. Eddington, the longtime NOPD cop, put the number of officers who “semicircled around us” at between 11 and 15.
“I would never have treated a fellow police officer the way they treated us. We felt like hostages.” – Lt. Ruben Stephens, NOPD
Chris Roberts also responded to the call for reinforcements. Roberts was a Jefferson Parish councilman, not a sworn peace officer, but he later described himself as eager to help protect his town from looters and other bad elements from New Orleans. “He was this little, short white guy getting into people’s faces,” Brandon Mason, an RTA supervisor said. “He’s yelling at people, ‘This is my city,’ telling us how it’s martial law and we have no business being in his city.”
Wilfred Eddington was the first person Roberts encountered at the scene. “Who in the hell ordered this? Who said these people could get off here?” Eddington turned and saw a short white man walking his way, jabbing his finger at him.
“Who ordered what?” Eddington stood up. He towered over Roberts.
“Who told you to bring these people over here under this bridge?”
Eddington asked who was asking and Roberts identified himself. “Okay, Chris Roberts, you have a few seconds to back off and just get out of my face.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Get the hell out of my face,” Eddington yelled, then heard the unmistakable crack of someone racking a shotgun. A Gretna officer, apparently, did not like the manner in which this black cop from New Orleans was talking to an elected official. Eddington stomped over to confront the cop holding the shotgun. “As I’m walking to him, I’m breaking leather,” Eddington said. “I’m coming out.” He had a police revolver on his right hip. And he was unholstering his weapon.
Ronnie Harris, the longtime Gretna mayor, arrived and demanded to know who was in charge. All eyes turned to Harris and also to Gerald Robichaux, who was talking on a cell phone, seeing if he could find any buses and drivers to get them out of there. Robichaux had run the transit agency on this side of the bridge before taking the number two job at the RTA. He and Harris knew one another. If Harris had not shown up when he did, Lieutenant Stephens said, “God only knows where it would have went.” The mayor promised a few Porta Potties and ordered someone to get some water for their “guests.”
The Gretna police still didn’t holster their guns. “We had weapons pointed at us the entire time,” Lieutenant Stephens said. The violation of the blue-brotherhood code seemed to aggravate Stephens more than anything else. “I would never have treated a fellow police officer the way they treated us,” he said. “We felt like hostages.”
“Mr. Robichaux was trying to explain that we were there doing a job, not folks coming over to loot,” said Cindy Crayton, Gerald Robichaux’s executive assistant. Yet they were treated as nothing but a mostly black group invading a predominantly white enclave.
After a couple of hours of forced detention for the RTA contingent, several RTA coaches pulled up at the Gretna bus depot. Their caravan then headed to Baton Rouge. A few people would be dropped off at a hospital, but most were brought to an evacuation center. They slept on canvas cots that week in a huge auditorium crowded with hundreds of other evacuees. But they also had access to a bathroom when they needed it. Their shelter had electricity and plenty of food and water. They were among the lucky ones.
The next day, Wednesday, August 31, the Gretna police brass split their force into two. Those on the early shift began work at 7:00 a.m. Those on the late shift took over at 7:00 p.m. An ex-marine named Scott Vinson, a sergeant on the late shift, was responsible for patrolling that first exit ramp people would reach on the West Bank side of the bridge. For anyone in the vicinity of the New Orleans central business district, the Crescent City Connection—a pair of steel bridges stretching across the Mississippi—pointed the way toward freedom. Vinson’s job was to see that people didn’t walk aimlessly through Gretna in search of an escape route.
Tuesday night had been quiet at the bottom of the exit. But all Wednesday evening and into the night, a steady procession of people in clusters of twos and threes and fives walked down the ramp. Vinson stationed two patrolmen at the bottom of the highway. They lined people up and kept order while he used his radio to scrounge up buses—anything to transport people to an evacuation point. He did the same shortly after daybreak on Thursday, when a “second wave” of evacuees, Vinson said, came trudging over the bridge.
Vinson worked past the end of his shift and into the early afternoon, “till that last person was loaded on a bus.” A tired Vinson arrived at the Gretna police station, where he bunked that week, exhausted but feeling good about what he and his people had accomplished. “The three of us were able to help in excess of a thousand people. Closer to fifteen hundred,” Vinson said.
Charles Whitmer, Gretna’s deputy police chief, expected to see mobs when he drove up on the bridge at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday. Instead he saw smaller groups of “one, two, three, here and there, with two or three behind them. Sporadic.” But he also told his boss, Chief Arthur Lawson, that he could see people “just continuously as far as I can see into New Orleans.” That was enough for Lawson. He ordered his number two to track down the chief of the bridge police. “Tell him we need to talk about the pedestrian situation on the bridge,” Chief Lawson instructed.
Chief Lawson and several of his people were at the meeting on Thursday morning where they decided to shut down the Crescent City Connection. The head of the bridge police was there; the meeting was in his office, located on the West Bank side of the bridge. That was technically Orleans Parish, yet no one on their side of the bridge even tried to contact their counterparts in New Orleans. “The radios were out,” Whitmer explained. “The phones were out.” Yet NOPD had set up an impromptu headquarters at the foot of Canal Street, just on the other side of the bridge, under the entrance to Harrah’s casino—as anyone listening to a police scanner or even CNN would know. Including New Orleans in their multijurisdictional decision would have required just a ten-minute drive across the river to extend an invitation.
The chief of the bridge police, Michael Helmstetter, when asked to explain his rationale for voting to shut down the Crescent City Connection, said, “I guess to protect the pedestrians that were crossing.” Chief Lawson cited any number of explanations: He needed to think about his men, who were on their fourth or fifth day working 12-hour shifts. The city had ample food and drink, but not if they had to share it with every person who crossed its city limits. “We aided as long as we could,” Lawson said.
No notes were taken during the meeting, but by all accounts there wasn’t much dissension. Mainly the talk was about the logistics of shutting down the bridge. The bridge police would block anyone already on the interstate from walking toward Gretna. Jefferson Parish posted several deputies at a ramp near the Superdome, while Gretna took responsibility for blocking the entrance ramp at Tchoupitoulas Street, also on the New Orleans side of the bridge.
At around 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, September 1, 2005, with the thermometer near 90 degrees, the first three Gretna patrol officers took their post at the top of the Tchoupitoulas ramp. The Crescent City Connection was now closed to any pedestrian seeking a way out of New Orleans.
They were treated as nothing but a mostly black group invading a predominantly white enclave.
Kathleen Blanco was at the state’s emergency operations center in Baton Rouge when she learned about the bridge closing. The governor was furious. “They had no authority to do what they did,” Blanco said. The Crescent City Connection fell under the jurisdiction of Louisiana’s Department of Transportation. Blocking pedestrian traffic from crossing the bridge would have been her call and a decision she would not have made.
“Nothing needed to be shut down,” Blanco said. “It was totally unnecessary and a horrible reaction based on fear.”
Ray Nagin might have been even angrier than Blanco—if he knew what was happening. On Thursday morning, Nagin was angry at Blanco, not anyone in Gretna. The governor had been promising buses for at least two days, yet now he was hearing reports of buses picking up people on the roadways before they even reached the city. Reports came as well of buses skipping past the city to pick up people in the suburbs. In protest, Nagin called for a “freedom march” across the Crescent City Connection. Tap out a press statement on your BlackBerry, he instructed his communications director. “We said, ‘If you want to walk across the Crescent City Connection, there’s buses coming, you may be able to find some relief,” the mayor wrote in a self-published memoir based on those few weeks when he was the most famous mayor in America.
Nagin also instructed his police chief to spread word among officers working near the Convention Center: buses—the buses to safety—are just on the opposite side of the bridge.