Listening to Your Neighbors Die

For three days, Glen Williams sat on his rooftop in New Orleans, watching the water lap at the eaves and listening to unimaginable sounds in his once quiet, close-knit neighborhood.

The cries for help from neighbors, in attics with the waters up to their necks, grew more piteous as the days went by and no help arrived.

But it was the calls from his elderly neighbor, Doris, that haunts him.

“I heard her die,” Williams said, bowing his head and running a scraped hand over his graying, close-cropped hair.

“She cried for two nights, ‘Help. Someone help me please!’ Then the last time I heard her call it turned into a gurgle. That was her last cry.

“I wish I could have saved her. There wasn’t nobody there to save her.”

Williams is an amiable man who smiles more than he talks. A burly man with an impish sense of humor, he said he’s so laidback he decided to take a nap when his wife, Viola, left the house to gather her mother and evacuate the city.

As the waters crept up the foundation of his house, he shrugged his shoulders and went back to sleep. The waters have risen like that before, but they always stop at the porch, he said, smiling wide.

But there’s a stunned quality to his grin now and tears hover right below the surface. The tales of near-death overshadow even his joyous reunion with Viola on Sunday in a church-turned-shelter just outside Houston and survival they had to tell each other.

As families like the Williamses begin to find missing members through phone calls, Red Cross databases and the kindness of strangers, the reality of what they have been through and the uncertainty of what lies ahead is setting in.

There are paychecks that were never received and jobs that are gone. Houses, furniture, cars, financial records, appliances _ all were swallowed by water.

Rebuilding will take money _ billions by federal estimates _ and help from communities, private businesses and the government for years, disaster experts say.

“There’s no finite date on how long this will take. But we know it’s not going to be anytime soon,” said George Hammerlein, a spokesman for Harris County, Texas, government agencies.

Houston, which was the first city to step up and offer official refuge to evacuees from New Orleans, is now feeling the brunt of the strain.

Thousands of evacuees are pouring into Texas, which has begun sending them to other states. Convention centers and emergency shelters throughout Texas are full with an estimated 139,000 Louisiana residents, according to the governor’s Web site. Another 100,000 are staying in hotels statewide.

Electronic signs along major highways in Houston flashed directions to newly arriving evacuees to head to Arkansas. Other states such as California, Michigan and Utah have offered to take some of the load off Texas.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has issued several orders and made federal-aid requests designed to help evacuees get back on their feet as they reside in his state.

For example, the IRS approved a waiver request that will allow 18,000 vacant low-income housing units to be used by Louisiana residents.

In addition, five school districts in the Houston area will be taking up to 8,000 elementary and high-school students from Louisiana. And the state employment agencies have set up special programs to help evacuees find work.

That’s what Viola Williams wants: a job. She wants to stay in Houston, too, she told her husband. It’s been kind to her.

Glen Williams is not so sure right now. The former shuttle operator wants to go to Alabama and Mississippi and search for other missing relatives now that he has found his wife. Mostly, though, he wants to go back to New Orleans and sift through the ruins of his home and former life.

“I just need time to take in what’s happened to us,” he said. “Everything was gone, changed in the blink of an eye.”

(Contact Tamara Koehler of the Ventura County Star in California at