After storm's fury, a sorrowful task: Gathering up the dead

The woman’s body, slight and petite, was revealed as floodwaters receded, washed up against the green metal fence surrounding her apartment complex.

Neighbors knew exactly who she was: Keisha Williams, a 32-year-old licensed vocational nurse and single mother of two girls. They had watched her drown in angry floodwaters as they frantically called 911.

Now, they wondered how many more victims remained entombed in flooded apartments.

So far, Hurricane Harvey has claimed at least 31 lives. But the death toll is expected to rise this week as flooding subsides and people return home and search for the missing, making the same sorts of grim discoveries as people did in neighboring Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, a dozen years ago.

Houston officials embarked on the house-to-house search Thursday in areas where floodwaters rose 3 feet or more. That could eventually include the Woodforest Chase apartment complex in the eastern neighborhood of Northshore.

As they searched, the storm was still causing havoc. On Houston’s northern outskirts, a fire at a chemical plant rattled nerves when it spewed a plume that was deemed noxious, but not dangerously toxic. A major hospital in Beaumont, 90 miles east, had to shut down after the town’s water supply failed.

But the recovery of the dead was a quieter affair: sorrowful, slow, infused with dread of what still remained to be discovered.

The boxy tan stucco complex of Woodforest Chase faces Greens Bayou, an unruly, brush-choked river that overflowed during the worst of the storm last weekend, sweeping families from their homes. Farther north, the same bayou swept away a van containing a family of six. The vehicle was retrieved Wednesday.

At Woodforest Chase, those who could fled to the complex’s rooftops as the waters rose. From there, they shouted for help and watched helplessly in horror as neighbors drowned.

One resident who had taken refuge on a roof, Roshanda Harris, said she saw five bodies float away, including those of three children.

Derrick Vance, 29, said he saw half a dozen people die. He descended from the roof at one point to help families next door. But he couldn’t reach Williams and others stranded across the complex. The parking lot between them had become a roaring river.

“Most people that died was on that side. There might be some people still in their apartments,” he said Wednesday, pointing to the area where Williams’ body was found.

A team from the local medical examiner’s office removed Williams’ body from the complex fence Wednesday, and relatives broke the news to her daughters that their mother had died.

Neighbors said they couldn’t be sure how many had fled before floodwaters rose nearly to the roofs. The storm peeled open apartment doors, windows and whole walls, washing the contents through the surrounding fence. There, they became mired like flotsam on the beach, with the same briny stench.

Shaky cellphone video posted online (warning: the audio content is disturbing) showed figures clinging to a tree in the parking lot as brown water rushed around them, ripping one woman’s clothes off and threatening to tear her away as the other figure clung to her underwear.

“Pull her up! She under water!” shouted a woman filming from across the complex.

“Pull her head up!” yelled a girl.

A man can be heard on his phone nearby calling 911.

“Tell them she going underwater and she can’t breathe,” the woman said.

“We need someone out here now, we’ve got people drowning,” the man told an operator.

Suddenly, the woman filming screamed.

“She’s gone — they let her go,” she said. Noting others had already drowned, she added, “That’s not the first person.”

A cousin, Daquan Green, said he recognized Williams in the video. He also recognized a friend in a pink jacket, who had accompanied her back to the apartments, and was the one who tried to save her. The friend survived, he said.

Williams could not swim, according to Green, 21, who was at her apartment Wednesday with relatives.

Williams had graduated from Houston’s Furr High School and worked at a local hospital while studying to become a licensed vocational nurse, virtually living in her scrubs, Green said. The single mother rented her own apartment, bought a blue Chevy Malibu sedan and had just received her license before Harvey hit, he said.

When the storm started, Green said, Williams left daughters Kiaja Williams, 13, and Kinaya Williams, 10, with her aunt and returned to the complex to save her dogs, pit bulls Tiger and Doughboy.

“They lived. She never made it to them,” Green said.

Saturday would have been her 33rd birthday.

The search Thursday morning began at the Meyerland Plaza mall, where Houston Fire Capt. Mike Robertson and his team of firefighters joined police and search-and-rescue staff from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

They boarded buses into the heart of the Meyerland neighborhood, and set out with GPS trackers. Their quarry, those who didn’t make it out, and also any evidence of broken gas lines that could start a fire.

Homes would not be marked on the door with Xs, the notorious “Katrina Cross” search codes spray-painted by FEMA crews across the front of stricken houses after that deadly storm. "It alerts the wrong people that no one is there," said Sheldra Brigham, a Fire Department spokeswoman, explaining that the Xs could attract looters or squatters.

Instead, the search crews will use the GPS trackers to record and map what they find.

Workers were already stripping soaked carpet and drywall from the 1960s-era brick ranch houses. Skip those houses, Robertson told the crew — it was clear the owners were around and responding to the disaster.

The houses they worried about were the quiet ones, especially those boarded up with the lights still on, or houses where dogs could be heard barking inside when they knocked on the door.

Homeowners dusty from repairs popped out of front doors to aid the half a dozen firefighters, telling them which neighbors had evacuated to the downtown convention center, stayed with family or left on an errand.

Firefighter Adam Hairston later paused at a house where he could hear cats inside, meowing. An SUV was parked in the driveway.

“That’s just suspicious. Who leaves their car behind?” said Hairston, who postponed his birthday vacation to join the storm response. “Somebody’s in there, probably scared to come to the door.”

But searchers had to move on. They would only enter a home during the search if they knew a body was there, and then only with Houston police by their side, Fire District Chief Chris Chavez said.

After walking about a mile and a half, their first grid search was complete. By day’s end, they had checked about 320 homes. No one trapped, no dead, no injured — so far.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollyhf

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UPDATES:

8:45 p.m.: This article was updated with a final tally for the day of about 320 homes checked by a team of city and federal officials.

7:30 p.m.: This article was updated with details of Thursday morning’s search.

4:05 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details on victims and the search process.

12:25 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Sheldra Brigham of the Houston Fire Department.

This article was originally published at 4 a.m.

This article misspells the subject's name. It is Keisha Williams, not Kiesha. She was a licensed vocational nurse, not a nursing assistant. One of her two daughters, Kinaya, is 10, not 11.
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