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Sunday, September 11, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rescue mission is all in the family

Times Snohomish County Bureau

EVERETT — "Brother, it's real bad, we need help, it's real bad."

The words coming across the telephone line spurred John Williams to action.

Anticipating the fury of Hurricane Katrina, the Everett man's sister-in-law, Dessiere Ford, had left her single-story home in New Orleans' Littlewoods community with her five young children in tow. Thinking she'd be gone only for several hours — a day or two at most — she said she wore just her slippers and nightgown and carried only her keys, ID and cigarettes.

The family rode out the hurricane on the 11th floor of a New Orleans high-rise, then spent five days in the convention center in New Orleans — without food and water and witnessing death, rape and violence.

Ford called her brother-in-law as a last resort, she said. She thought she was going to die.

So Williams launched a personal rescue operation. He got in his 1993 Cadillac with his wife and drove south with only a few hundred dollars in donations from friends and acquaintances. They drove day and night, taking turns at the wheel, not knowing where they'd finally make contact with their family or what condition they'd find them in.

When they ran out of money, Williams said, they got donations from people they met. In Colorado one woman gave them $100 and a couple bags of groceries after hearing their story. They stopped at Wendy's for food, and the manager gave them a stack of $2 coupons for the kids.

"People stepped up to the plate where agencies wouldn't step up and help me," said Williams, who had contacted Red Cross and FEMA before he left but couldn't get assistance.

The Red Cross did come through when the evacuees arrived in Washington, though, and is providing some of Williams' relatives with a hotel room for two weeks, he said.

Williams, Ford and other family members told their story to the media and members of the Greater Trinity Missionary Baptist Church in Everett yesterday.

A week ago Saturday, while Williams was in transit, Ford and her children were put on a bus to Little Rock, Ark., the family said. That's where Williams and his wife eventually caught up with Ford, her children and a couple of uncles. Nine people squeezed into Williams' Cadillac, and five others took one of the uncles' cars, and they drove the 2,300 miles to Lynnwood in three days.

Now that the evacuees are here, they find themselves trying to rebuild their lives.

Ford said she picked out her home in aerial TV footage of her neighborhood. All she could see was the roof; the floodwaters were up to the eaves.

That's when she knew she wasn't going back to New Orleans. The Northwest will be her home now, she said.

She wants to find a job — housekeeping, front-desk work at a hotel, or restaurant work — and the family is looking for a home. They can't stay forever with Williams.

Ford's children are to begin school in Lynnwood tomorrow, but foremost she's worried about her 18-year-old daughter, who is in a shelter in Alexandria, Va., alone and scared. They were separated at the time of the hurricane, and Ford said she doesn't have the money to bring her here.

Williams worries about the rest of his extended family of 15 aunts and uncles and all of their children, most of whom lived in Louisiana.

He hasn't heard from most of them since the storm, but he keeps his cellphone ready, and he'll drive to the Southeast again to pick them up if need be.

"If I have to do it two, three more times, I'm on my way," he said.

Brian Alexander: 425-745-7845 or balexander@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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