HOUSTON – The woman’s body was revealed as floodwaters receded, washed up against the green metal fence surrounding her apartment complex.
Neighbors knew who she was: Kiesha Williams, a nurse and single mother of two whom they had watched drown as they frantically called 911.
They wondered how many more victims remained entombed in flooded apartments.
So far, Hurricane Harvey has claimed 31 lives in the Houston area, and more statewide as the storm spread to suburbs, then east to Beaumont and Port Arthur. But the death toll is expected to rise this week as flooding subsides and people return home and search for the missing, making grim discoveries as people did in neighboring Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Houston officials plan to start the house-to-house search Thursday in areas where floodwaters rose 3 feet or more.
That includes Woodforest Chase apartment complex in the eastern neighborhood of Northshore.
The boxy tan stucco complex 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. From there, they shouted for help and watched helplessly in horror as neighbors drowned. Another resident at Woodforest Chase who also 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.
Officials have yet to search door to door at the complex, where eerie alarms still sounded late Wednesday. 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 where they became mired like flotsam on the beach, with the same briny stench.
Shaky cellphone video posted on Facebook showed figures clinging to a tree in the parking lot as brown water rushed around them, ripping one girl’s clothes off and threatening to tear her away as the other figure clung to her underwear.
“Pull her up! She underwater!” 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.”
Also caught in the turbulent waters was Williams. She could not swim, according to a cousin, Daquan Green, 21, who was at Williams’ apartment Wednesday with relatives.
Williams had graduated from Furr High School and worked at a local hospital while studying to become a certified nurse’s assistant, virtually living in her scrubs, he said. The single mother rented her own apartment, bought a blue Chevy Malibu sedan and had just received her nursing license before Harvey hit, he said.
When the storm started, Green said, Williams initially drove away from the complex with her two young daughters, then returned by herself. He wasn’t sure why.
“She left them with my mother and said she was coming back,” he said.
A team from the local medical examiner’s office removed Williams’ body from the complex fence Wednesday, and relatives told her daughters that she had died.
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