Choctaw family recounts tale of survival
WINSLOW, Ariz. -- When New Orleans District Attorney Byron C. Williams
finally fled the ruined city with his family, they couldn't even seek
shelter with the tribe of his wife and children because the small
Mississippi Band of Choctaw had also suffered the wrath of Hurricane
And when the family reached safety in Houston, Williams was still waiting
to hear from the last family member who hadn't checked in: his father.
In a Sept. 6 cell phone call, Williams shared the story of his family's
journey out of New Orleans.
"Hurricanes are nothing new here in Louisiana," said the 60-year-old
Williams, who grew up in New Orleans. "I've been through this before. I was
even here in 1965 when Hurricane Betsy hit. So for this one, we just got
ready for it."
His daughter, Powtawche Williams, said her parents didn't evacuate because
"my parents are like the ones who say, 'Oh, if we store enough food and
supplies, we'll be OK."
Even after Williams' family was rescued by a helicopter from their rooftop
three days after the hurricane hit, he still believes he made the right
choice. "I never thought for a moment that I would die or that something
bad would happen to any of us," he said. "We stocked up with batteries,
food, water, battery-powered radios. The thing we were concerned about was
the wind and damage to the house. If we had just left, everything on the
bottom floor of our house would have been ruined."
While the family waited for the water to recede, Powtawche, who recently
received a doctorate from Rice University in mechanical engineering, kept
in contact with her father and mother, Geraldine, via cell phone and
monitored events from California.
"With the help of a lot of my friends, we keep an eye on what was going
on," she said. "We used the Internet and e-mail to communicate with
officials and rescue crews."
"[My dad] could call out from his cell phone, but it was unreliable and it
didn't have much battery left. They had no clue how bad things were until
they got to Houston," she said.
"She served as a command post and resource center," Williams said about his
daughter. "She was calling the Coast Guard and National Guard and telling
them where we were located. She told us to stay inside because the TV was
showing some shooting taking place."
When electricity went out on Aug. 28, he turned his cell phone off to
preserve the battery. "A lot of the cell phones didn't work," he said.
"[But] it depended on the carrier."
Powtawche coordinated their helicopter pickup through voicemail messages.
As the water level inched up, the family moved to the second floor of their
brick house. "Everything on the bottom floor is destroyed," he said.
As a hurricane veteran, Williams planned to weather the storm and its
destruction, until his father told him on Aug. 31: "Get out of there."
"So we left," he said.
But it still wasn't easy. "A couple of times the Coast Guard flashed them
[overhead] and they didn't know it was for them," Powtawche said. "So they
missed their airlift."
Around 5 a.m. on Aug. 31, the National Guard finally rescued them. "I left
with only two pairs of underwear and my trunks," he said. "My wife only has
the clothes on her back."
They were airlifted to a bridge near the University of New Orleans, a
temporary staging area where some 3,000 sought refuge. "That was one of the
places not seen on TV," he said. He was able to recharge his cell phone at
the center until the generator ran out of diesel fuel. "After that, it was
dark at night."
"There were two police officers, about 12 firemen and two campus cops
keeping order there," he said. "But there was no food or water. We saw a
lot of looting. But they were bringing food to all the people staying
When others asked him to help out with looting, he said, "I told them I am
a prosecutor, I can't be doing that. I am supposed to uphold the law." A
few times, "things got unruly," he said, "but nothing bad." They spent a
day there until they had to take a boat to a new location.
"At the new place is where they bused us out to Houston," he said. "It was
crazy there. You were lucky if you got on the same bus with your family,"
he said. "A lot of people didn't and they got split up. I was one of the
last three on the bus but I made sure my family got on, and believe me, I
made sure I got on it too," he said. "The scene was one of pushing, shoving
and elbowing ... It was a relief to finally get on."
Everyone was safe, he said, except for a few of his relatives, including
his father. "We're still waiting for word about my father [78-year-old
Clarence Williams Sr.]," he said.
Along their journey, he said, they didn't see any bodies floating in the
water. "That was probably in other areas of Orleans."
"We're just thankful we got out," he said. "We didn't know where we were
going, we just got on the bus and left."
Their bus was with an envoy of 10 other buses, flanked with police escorts
all the way to Houston, he said. "We got to Houston about six and a half
hours later," he said. "Nobody freaked out on the trip there. People were
just relieved, like we were, for getting out of the city."
In Houston a friend of his daughter picked them up and allowed them to stay
at their place until they found a place with his wife's relatives from
They have no plans yet. "Maybe [in a few days we'll] contact Chief [Philip]
Martin and talk to the folks on the [Mississippi Band of Choctaw]
reservation," he said. "All we hear about the reservation is what we hear
on news reports. The rez is probably in better shape than New Orleans. But
right now, we need to get some normalcy back into our lives," he said. "We
need to get our son enrolled into school then start thinking of what we're
going to do next."
Unlike others, he's not placing blame or angry. "No, this is God's will,"
he said. "This was an act of God; that is how I see it. We roll right with
it. We're just thankful for anything and everything coming our way."