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As Tchoupitoulas Street burns, Maxine Williams waits for rescue

NEW ORLEANS—The 100 block of Tchoupitoulas was burning. It burned red and so hot that you could feel it across the street. The fireman didn't know how the fire had started, but he knew that it was too far gone to fight, so he sat down to watch.

Up along Poydras Street, a unit of military policemen debarked from their Hummers, implacable behind Oakley sunglasses and pointed rifles. They didn't know why they were setting up a defensive perimeter in the middle of the street. They had orders.

Up at the convention center, where thousands of refugees had been waiting days for an evacuation that still hadn't come, a great-grandmother pulled her great-grandchildren close.

"They call me Momma," she said.

She is Maxine Williams. She is 73, slight, with gray hair pulled into braids. The children are Isaiah and Anijah, 5 years old, twins, supernaturally patient. They've been living with her these last three years because their mother isn't well.

The three were standing outside in the hot sun because the inside of the convention center was a wet stinking septic mess and also because Williams had heard that buses were coming to take people to El Paso, Texas.

The first time Williams heard that, the buses were supposed to come at first light Friday morning, so she and the children had slept outside, they in sleeping bags and she on the concrete. The buses hadn't come, of course. But they were on their way, she'd heard.

Williams was patient and guilty because this was all, in a way, her fault.

"They told us to evacuate," she said. "But I was skeptical. I made a poor, poor choice, and now we're paying for it. I packed the car with clothes and food for them, fruits, vegetables and waffles—they love waffles—but then the water was up, and when I looked out to the car, it just wasn't there. It just wasn't there. I don't know if it floated away or if someone took it."

Isaiah and Anijah crouched at her feet, pushing a race car back and forth. They had Isaiah's block set, too. Grownups were giving them doughnuts and soda. They were in dirty clothes, and instead of shorts, Anijah was wearing a shirt fashioned into a loincloth, but they were having fun.

But now, after one night in Williams' waterlogged home, one on the floor of St. Augustine High and two outside the convention center, Williams was worried, worried in earnest.

"My blood pressure medicine has run out. Anijah had terrible diarrhea these last two days. She was barely standing this morning. I'm scared for her. I don't want her out in this."

Williams was under the impression that the Coast Guard could help. Maybe they would send a boat. More likely, Williams and her children would wait for the buses with everyone else.

She was smiling, but she looked very, very tired, and the children waved goodbye.

Down the street, the soldiers milled around, guns no longer drawn. Tchoupitoulas was still burning. Something exploded, and the macadam buckled.

"Welcome to Mogadishu," said the fireman.

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(Spangler reports for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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