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.
For the record:
2:22 p.m. Sept. 18, 2021This 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.
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.
Samir Novruzov wades through water to get to a vehicle after spending the day clearing out his flooded home in Katy, Texas.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Melissa Teague, right, instructs her children Andrew and Emily as they clear out their flooded home in Katy, Texas, on Monday.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
People ride through floodwaters in Katy, Texas.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
People hop off Chris Ginter’s truck as he helps ferry residents around Katy, Texas.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Two men collect a disposed mattress as residents in the Trinity/Houston Garden area of northeast Houston gut their flooded homes.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Wayne Christopher, center, weeps as his wife, Helen, looks on during a Sunday service at First United Methodist Church in Dickinson, Texas.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Hurricane Harvey severely damaged the First Baptist Church in Rockport, Texas. Worshipers on Sunday brought their own chairs to take part in an outdoor service.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Ken Garrett, right, hugs Pastor Jordan Mims after they both delivered prayers on the grounds of the First Baptist Church in Rockport, Texas.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
University of Houston law professor Johnny Buckles props up an American flag on the debris pile from his flood-damaged home in the Kingwood area of north Houston.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Jose Esquivel flags down motorists to visit a parking lot full of donated clothes, supples, water and brisket in Refugio, Texas.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Despite heavy damage and no electricity, a homeowner displays his patriotism while clean up and recovery efforts continue in his devastated neighborhood of Rockport.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Volunteers from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, Yusuf Seager, from left, Rahib Ahmed, Rahman Nasir, and Khalil Nasir help tear out drywall damaged by floodwater in the Westbury neighborhood in Houston.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Volunteers from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association help residents of the Westbury neighborhood in Houston clear debris from their homes. It is also the Islamic holiday of Eid-ul-Adha. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Jenna Fountain and her father Kevin carry a bucket down Regency Drive to try to recover items from their flooded home in Port Arthur, Texas on Thursday.(Emily Kask / AFP / Getty Images)
Lillie Roberts talks with family members as contractor Jerry Garza begins the process of repairing her Houston home on Friday.(Scott Olson / Getty Images)
to perform holy prayer as they help local residents in the Kashmere Gardens area of Houston clean out their flooded homes.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Volunteers assist Cornell Beasley with repairs to his damaged home in Houston on Friday.(Scott Olson / Getty Images)
Katie Estridge organizes hundreds of soaked family photographs on the front lawn of her father’s home in northeast Houston.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Wes Higgins wipes sweat from his face after spending five days patrolling flooded Houston neighborhoods in his boat. Higgins, from Knott, Texas, organized a volunteer team of 10 boats to help Houston residents.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Members of the California Air National Guard 129th Rescue Wing, Senior Airman George McKenzie, left, and Master Sgt. Adam Vanhaaster, right, help a man carry his infant, who has a serious medical condition, to a hospital in Orange, Texas.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A search-and-rescue crew speeds along Maple Rock Drive in west Houston looking for flood victims.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
A woman and a child are among those rescued by California Air National Guardsmen in Lumberton, north of Beaumont.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
California Air National Guard 129th Rescue Wing’s Master Sgt. Adam Vanhaaster searches for people in need of help near Lumberton.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A man prepares his dinner at home near Lumberton.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Boys sit on a damaged railroad track near Lumberton.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A woman waves to a California Air National Guard helicopter from her neighborhood near Lumberton.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A drop-off point for boat rescues in Lumberton.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Baseball fields in Lumberton are inundated.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Coca-Cola delivery trucks are trapped by floodwater in Lumberton, Texas.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A military search and rescue helicopter refuels mid-flight before resuming nighttime missions over areas flooded in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Houston police search a flooded home after hearing that an elderly couple lived there. The house was empty. Police later learned the couple had safely evacuated.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
West Houston resident Pedro Albiso uses trash bags to protect his shoes and pants as he prepares to cross a flooded street.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Patients are evacuated from Baptist Hospitals of Southeast Texas after the city of Beaumont lost its water supply.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Fatima Flores, 12, gets her hair done by cousins Shelly Flores, 7, left, and Ashley Flores, 7, as their family takes shelter at Max Bowl, a bowling alley in Port Arthur, Texas.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
James Benoit, left, and George Clipton sought refuge at Max Bowl in Port Arthur, Texas.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
June Ayrow spent the night with his oxygen tanks underneath a table at Max Bowl in Port Arthur, Texas.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Floodwaters fill the road through the Lakes On Eldridge North subdivision in Houston on Thursday.(Brett Coomer / Houston Chronicle)
Floodwaters surround homes Thursday in Port Arthur, Texas.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
Volunteers rescue patients from the Cypress Glen nursing home where floodwaters trapped dozens of elderly patients in Port Arthur, Texas on Wednesday.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Residents lie on sofas as they wait to be evacuated from the Cypress Glen senior care facility in Port Arthur, Texas, which was inundated with floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Wednesday.(Matt Pearce / Los Angeles Times)
Emergency crews help rescue elderly residents from the Golden Years Assisted Living home in Orange, Texas, on Wednesday.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
Staff Sgt. Lawrence Lind, left, hoists a child into a Black Hawk helicopter while Sgt. Ray Smith helps the boy who was rescued in Port Arthur, Texas.(Chris Machian / Omaha World-Herald)
Rescuer workers help a woman from her flooded home n Port Arthur, Texas.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Evacuees ride on a truck after they were driven from their homes by the flooding in Port Arthur, Texas.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
People wait in line to buy groceries at a Food Town during the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey.(Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)
Juan Figueroa removes damaged furniture from his mother’s northeast Houston home where residents begin rebuilding from the devastating effects of the storm.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Rafael Minor, left, and Miguel Ramirez remove the contents from a flooded home in northeast Houston on Wednesday.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
A construction crew cleans out a home that was flooded by Tropical Storm Harvey in Spring, Texas.(Brett Coomer / Associated Press)
People line up to volunteer at NRG Center, which opened its doors to evacuees in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey.(Michael Ciaglo / Asscociated Press)
Chris Gutierrez, second from right, helps his grandmother, Edelmira Gutierrez, down the stairs of their flooded house in Houston.(Michael Ciaglo / Houston Chronicle)
A flooded residential neighborhood near Interstate 10 in Houston, Texas.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A flooded residential neighborhood near Interstate 10 in Houston, Texas.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
People come out to view the flooded areas near their homes in Houston, Texas.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
CaroLine Kirkpatrick of Salt Lake City, Utah, is evacuated from the Omni Hotel by rescue worker Adam Caballero in Addicks, a suburb of Houston, Texas.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
People displaced by flooding fill the shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston.(LM Otero / Associated Press)
Rescuers move Paulina Tamirano, 92, from a boat to a truck bed as people evacuate from rising waters in Houston.(Michael Ciaglo / Houston Chronicle)
Mark Ocosta and his baby, Aubrey, take shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Frantzy Thenor receives an embrace from a fellow evacuee after he helped her leave from the flooded Omni Hotel, in the Addicks area of Houston, Texas.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Storm clouds over Houston skyline.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Recreational vehicles sit on their sides in flood water in Houston, Texas.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A woman carries a dog above the rising floodwaters near Addicks Reservoir.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Eduardo Retiz, 21, drives his elevated pickup truck through a flooded street near Addicks Reservoir.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Mike Hoskovec, left, walks to a boat after helping friend Ben Berg, behind, move some photo albums to the second floor of his Nottingham Woods home.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Matthew Koser looks for important papers and heirlooms inside his grandfather’s house after it was flooded by heavy rains.(Erich Schlegel / Getty Images)
Residents wade through floodwaters as they evacuate their homes near the Addicks Reservoir Tuesday.(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
Larry Koser Jr., left and his son Matthew look for important papers and heirlooms inside Larry Koser Sr.'s house after it was flooded by heavy rains.(Erich Schlegel / Getty Images)
Portions of Interstate 10 remain flooded in Houston, Texas.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Rising flood waters stranded hundreds of residents of Twin Oaks Village in Clodine.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Comfort Morgan is helped to dry land after being rescued from her flooded home in Twin Oaks Village in Clodine.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Rising flood waters stranded hundreds of residents of Twin Oaks Village in Clodine, where a collection of small boat owners, including some with pool toys, coordinated to bring most to dry ground.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Rising flood waters stranded hundreds of residents of Twin Oaks Village in Clodine, where an collection of small boat owners coordinated to bring most to dry ground.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Hundreds of residents of Twin Oaks Village are evacuated in Clodine Monday.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Residents are stranded at Twin Oaks Village in Clodine due to rising flood water.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Stranded residents of Twin Oaks Village in Clodine are evacuated from the rising flood water.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Jan Tullos, 32, searches a flooded home for an injured woman who was reportedly stranded inside in Clodine, Texas. The home was empty.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
People walk down a flooded Houston street as they evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with rains from Tropical Storm Harvey.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Dean Mize holds children as he and Jason Legnon use an airboat to rescue people from flooded homes in Houston on Monday.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Dean Mize, left and Jason Legnon carry a person to an airboat as they rescue people in Houston.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Evacuees walk down a flooded street after leaaving their homes Monday in Houston.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Dean Mize holds a child as he helps evacuate people in Houston as Tropical Storm Harvey continues to drench southeastern Texas and Louisiana with heavy rains and surging floodwaters.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
People evacuate their flooded homes on Monday in Houston. By Monday morning, 911 operators had received 56,000 calls, city officials said.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Adults use a kiddie pool to transport children as they evacuate on Monday.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
People catch a ride on a construction vehicle down a flooded Houston street.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Residents of the La Vita Bella nursing home in Dickinson, Texas, on Sunday sit in waist-deep flood waters caused by Hurricane Harvey. Authorities have said all the residents were safely evacuated from the facility.(Trudy Lampson )
Mindy Walker and her 3-year-old son, Connor Martinez, are helped out of a boat after being rescued from their home along Cypress Creek, 15 miles northwest of downtown Houston, on Monday.(Michael Wyke / European Pressphoto Agency)
Alexendre Jorge evacuates Ethan Colman, 4, from a Houston neighborhood inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey.(Charlie Riedel / AP)
People push a stalled pickup to through a flooded street in Houston on Sunday, as Tropical Storm Harvey dumped heavy rains.(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)
A member of the Texas National Guard rescues a woman from a heavily flooded area in Houston on Aug. 27.(Lt. Zachary West / Texas National Guard )
A Houston police officer helps Frank Andrews, 74, into his walking chair after rescuing him from his flooded home in the Braeswood Place neighborhood, southwest of Houston, on Sunday.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Neighbors used their personal boats to rescue Jane Rhodesin Friendswood, Texas, on Sunday.(Steve Gonzales / Houston Chronicle )
Wilford Martinez, right, is rescued from his flooded car by Harris County Sheriff’s Department Richard Wagner along Interstate 610 in Houston, Texas.(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
Daniel Gross, 15, is rescued by Houston police after he was stranded on top of his car in southwest Houston.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Emily Zurawski cries while inspecting her home in Port Aransas, Texas, on Sunday.(Nick Wagner / Austin American-Statesman)
Two kayakers try to beat the current pushing them down an overflowing Brays Bayou along South Braeswood Boulevard in Houston.(Mark Mulligan / Houston Chronicle)
Andrew White, left, helps a neighbor down a street after rescuing her from her home in his boat in the upscale River Oaks neighborhood after it was inundated with flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey.(Scott Olson / Getty Images)
Rescuers transfer Claude Young on a back board from a boat in Houston on Sunday. The elderly man had suffered a stroke earlier in the year.(Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle)
Volunteers and officers from the neighborhood security patrol help rescue residents in Houston’s River Oaks neighborhood Sunday.(Scott Olson / Getty Images)
Jesus Nunez carries his daughter Genesis, 6, as he and numerous family members flee their flooded home, walking nearly four hours to the safety of a relative’s house on Sunday.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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.
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.
Los Angeles Times staff photographer Robert Gauthier talks about the small moments of humanity in the midst of Harvey.
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.
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.
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.
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