The Bridge To Gretna

Why Did Police Block Desperate Refugees From New Orleans?

"We're not a predominantly white racist community that some people may assume that, because we live in the South, because we're in New Orleans, that that's just the way it is," says Ronnie Harris, the mayor of Gretna.

Harris spoke with 60 Minutes because he feels strongly that the Gretna police department's actions on the bridge had nothing to do with race and have been greatly misunderstood.

"Our community is one that understands compassion, one that understands that we have to give where we can. But when there is none, you have to take care of your own population first. And that is what we were faced with," says Harris.

Gretna is a middle class suburb whose population of 17,500 is mostly white. But there is a substantial black minority: about 35 percent.

According to the mayor, from "day one" after the hurricane, Gretna was in no position to help outsiders.

"The city of Gretna was completely on its own. Our entire services were disrupted. No city services. No electricity. We had no shelter. We had no medical services. We were hit by a category four hurricane. What were people expecting us to do?" says Harris.

Harris says he saw brief reports of the looting in New Orleans. "Quite frankly, I was embarrassed to see a free-for-all of not taking food and water but goods and items. Vandalism. Civil unrest. Civil disobedience. And it sickened me."

The mayor's image of New Orleans came from media reports that emphasized chaos, looting and violence.

"So, this environment of police officers being shot, citizens lying dead in the street, images of looting going on in the city of New Orleans made me realize that our community was in a crisis of far greater proportion than just of the hurricane," says Harris.

His concern increased on Wednesday when thousands of people from New Orleans, mostly desperate poor African Americans, started walking across the bridge towards Gretna.

"It started as a trickle, then it began quite heavily. From our estimates, between 5,000 and 6,000 people amassed on the west bank of the river. Now, that's our side of the river. The Gretna side," says Harris.

The number of people fleeing the city was so large that the Gretna police commandeered transportation to bus them out of town. Over the next 24 hours, the police say they bused 6,000 evacuees from New Orleans. At the same time, police were on guard against reports of looting and stolen guns.

"All of this was crashing down on all of us who were in charge, had to make decisions in a crisis mode," says Harris.

What led to the police chief's decision to seal off Gretna?

"Something had to be done," says Harris. The mayor says it was the police chief's decision, a decision which he supported "wholeheartedly."

"We had to make a decision because we did not have the wherewithal to continue and to evacuate thousands and thousands of more people," Arthur Lawson, chief of police in Gretna, told a CBS News reporter shortly after the incident.

"Our job was to secure our city. We did our best to evacuate those that came over, but we could not continue to evacuate the entire city of New Orleans," Lawson told the CBS News reporter.

60 Minutes wanted to ask Lawson about his decision to shut down the bridge but he declined our request for an interview.

Mayor Harris says he sealed off the city because he wanted to protect the lives of Gretna's residents. "You had to be there to understand and witness total chaos, total mayhem, the lack of information," he says.

Does Harris think firing a shotgun was justified?

"When law enforcement is present, order is expected. Without it, terror and mayhem can ensue," the mayor says.

When asked if he felt he had to condemn everyone because there might be some bad apples in that group, Harris said "Absolutely not!"

But the city turned everyone around—even the elderly and children-- because there might be some bad apples with them.

"What we did was seal that location off just like a dead end, because there was no safety or security available to wherever they were going. It did not exist. Was not there," Harris said.

But, again, the city didn't let anyone into their community, including old women and children, because of fears that some bad apples might have come in with them.

"The crowd was desperate," Harris said. "The crowd had gone through some unbelievable sights and sounds and devastation [in the] hurricane. And I understand they were looking for safety and security. Something that I could not provide. It was as simple as that," said Harris.