03 October 2005

Choctaw Tale of Survival...

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Choctaw Family Recounts Tale of Survival
© Indian Country Today September 12, 2005. All Rights Reserved
Posted: September 12, 2005
by: George Joe

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 Katrina.

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 there.''

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 Mississippi.

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.''


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