18 Dead in Sea of Debris as Houston Dries Out

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They found them tangled in trees and trapped in water-logged cars. Death turned up in gutters and in basements. By Sunday afternoon, there were 18 bodies in all, and officials dreaded more lurked undiscovered in these streets.

The milky waters that brought the nation's fourth-largest city to its knees this weekend drained away slowly Sunday. As a soggy and stinking town reemerged, estimates of the damage suffered by homes and business soared to $1 billion.

The wreckage was wrought by Allison, a brutal tropical storm that wept lakes of water over Houston earlier in the week, drifted north and then--in a rare spin--returned to the Gulf of Mexico to gather strength before clobbering Houston all over again Friday and Saturday.

By the time the skies cleared Sunday, 28 counties in southeast Texas were swamped. About 10,000 Houston homes were flooded. Helicopters and 5-ton trucks rumbled through the neighborhoods, plucking stranded victims from rooftops.

"The widespread nature of this, we've never seen before. It blew my mind," Rice University flood expert Philip Bedient said.

"I'm afraid to see my house," said Willie Emerson, 58, who took shelter in a Baptist church, six grandchildren in tow. "When I left it, the furniture was floating."

At least 15,000 people fled to makeshift shelters. Thousands of families soldiered on without lights or phone service. Drivers sat on hold for hours in hopes of finding their abandoned or towed cars. Stoplights were dead, skyscrapers stood dark and filthy water poured from parking garages. Many roads and highways remained closed late Sunday.

The storm hovered over Louisiana on Sunday, where at least one person died and at least 1,800 people were flooded out of their homes.

As workers continued to pump water out of buildings in downtown Houston, Mayor Lee Brown urged city workers to stay home today.

Meanwhile, people who spent the weekend in shelters crossed their fingers and ventured home--only to find their homes laid to waste.

"This ain't my house anymore," said Lyda Crews, her voice cracking as she gazed at the swampy puddles of her living room in northwest Houston. She shuddered and swiped at her eyes. "I'm sorry. I just didn't get any rest the last two days."

Crews and her husband were stuck over the weekend in a dark, hot hospital room. Lonnie Crews was recovering from dialysis treatment when Hermann Hospital's generator sputtered to a stop Friday night.

When the lights first hummed off and the sudden silence of stilled machines filled the hospital, Crews didn't dare leave her husband's side. When she finally crept into the inky hallways, she found water lapping at the escalator.

"It was the weirdest thing. I went back, and we just sat there, scared. Lord, we were scared," Crews said Sunday, shaking her head in her frontyard.

The hours dragged on, and the couple grew weary with heat and dehydration. Outside, rain hammered the asphalt and lightning cracked the skies.

"The rain came down like something I'd never seen," Crews said. "It's like you lost your eyesight, like you done went blind."

There was nothing to do but wait and pray. All around them, patients were being wheeled into waiting helicopters and ambulances, critical cases first. Night turned to day, day to night again. It was the small hours of Sunday morning before Lonnie Crews was ferried to another hospital.

Then Lyda came home and found their pretty, one-story home trashed by thigh-deep waters. Her computer was wrecked, along with the organ where Lonnie plunked away at his favorite hymns. The carpets were reduced to tangled piles of yarn and foam.

"I just hate that everything happened so soon," Crews said ruefully.

Meanwhile, as children frolicked in shallow puddles, health officials fretted over the bacteria festering on lawns, in parks and on kitchen floors. The stench of mold and sewage filled the air. Snakes, rats and flies crawled over the wreckage.

Those weren't the only varmints that emerged to feast on the remains: At least half a dozen abandoned houses and shops were looted. Officials warned against door-to-door salespeople peddling bogus cleanup and disinfecting treatments at inflated prices.

"There are people who take advantage of other people's distress, unfortunately," police spokesman John Leggio said.

In apartments across the city, a hard truth was remembered: Renters' insurance doesn't include flood protection.

The Harris County Courthouse was badly flooded. The jail lost power, and 3,000 inmates were evacuated late Saturday.

In the Texas Medical Center, the hospitals were still dark Sunday morning. The weak glow of flashlights fluttered in the warm caverns of the corridors. "There's nothing to do but go home," said cardiologist Eddy Barasch, shaking his head in the entry to Hermann Hospital. "It's just heartbreaking."

Behind him, a deserted lobby was littered with broken glass, rotting leaves and sludge. Chairs were overturned. Caked mud marked the waterline on the white walls.

"I'm way too exhausted to try to stay and help," said surgery resident Kevin Sirmons, who prowled the halls in his scrubs. "I've been working for two days straight. I don't even know if I got flooded at home."

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Times researcher Lianne Hart also contributed to this report.

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