Survivor stories: New Orleans journo and former CP staffer Katy Reckdahl on the view from Touro Infirmary
"Why didn't they leave?" That question was asked over and over in the days after Katrina. Barely concealed in the questions--sometimes not concealed at all--is the suggestion that the hurricane's victims are to blame for their plight. But of course, there are thousands of explanations for why people stayed. For Katy Reckdahl--a reporter at the Gambit, a New Orleans alternative weekly, and a former staff writer at City Pages--it really wasn't a matter of choice. On Saturday night, with the hurricane bearing down, Katy found herself at Touro Infirmary, where she would give birth to her first child, a baby boy named Mervin Hector.
For the next four days, Katy, the baby and Katy's boyfriend, jazz musician "Kid" Merv Campbell, were marooned at the hospital. For much of that time, conditions were primitive, food was scarce and rumors rampant. After the generators failed, there was no electricity or running water and little communication with the outside world. To maneuver the hospital's dark corridors, Katy and Merv relied chiefly on the dim light from an otherwise useless cell phone.
Just before noon on Wednesday, with the situation becoming increasingly desperate, the family got a ride out of town from a sympathetic nurse, who took them to the airport in Baton Rouge. From there, they made their way to Katy's sister's home in Tempe, Arizona, where, in the week since her escape, Katy has come to accept that she won't be returning to her adopted hometown any time soon. Reached by the telephone yesterday, she discussed the ordeal with customary candor and wit.
Katy's story, in her own words:
All day Saturday, people were getting ready to evacuate. Everyone you saw in the street would say, "Are you leaving?" Among our friends, it was 50-50 between people staying, people going. We were debating because I was so enormously pregnant--38 weeks along, big as a house and four centimeters dilated, which meant I could go on to labor at any moment.
Last year, I had evacuated for Hurricane Ivan. We spent 14 hours on the road, and then we got two drops of rain in New Orleans. I knew I couldn't do that this time. For one thing, you really don't own your bladder at that point in pregnancy. And if I had gone into labor, I probably would been forced to give birth in a car.
At about 10 p.m., when Merv got home from his gig, my contractions were getting pretty close. So he borrowed a car and drove like a speed demon to Touro--me in the back seat, on all fours and in a lot of pain. When we arrived to the hospital, they discovered Hector was lying sideways, so they had to turn him about 90 degrees before he could come out. I could have never given birth to him in a car. It turned out we probably did the right thing by staying.
I started to push at midnight. Hector wasn't born until 4:14 in the morning. He was a cute, mellow little dude and we called some people to say that we were staying and then I fell asleep. About eight hours after I gave birth, the hospital was put on lock down, which meant no one could leave and no one could enter. So after that, I really didn't think again about evacuating.
About 6 a.m. on Monday morning, we were awakened by the head nurse. The hurricane came through--it sounded like a train--and she was telling everyone to move in the hallways. Originally, they had thought we would be okay in our rooms because the glass was rated for 200 mph winds. But after a few windows broke in the upper stories, someone decided all the patients would sit out the hurricane in the hallways.
We were on generator power all through the hurricane. Initially, the phones were still working. The girl across from me was talking to her mom, who lives in the lower ninth ward--one of the places that was hit really badly. Her mom was saying she was in the attic, trying to get onto the roof. Then the line went dead. All through the morning, there was this horrible pall on our floor because we realized that her mom could be dead.
The generator for our part of the hospital failed around 7 o'clock that night and we left were in total darkness. It was bizarre to live that way, no electricity for two days, then no water. We were using the light of the cellphone to get around the room at night, and to light up my nipples. It was so crazy. Merv would be standing there with an open cell phone, pointed at my nipple, and we'd try to get the baby to latch on.
We started to get reports on an A.M. radio call-in show, which was the only outside communication we had. They said that the ninth ward had been hit pretty bad and that a lot of people had probably died. But then we were also hearing that the rest of the city had survived. It seemed like it was just a matter of getting the power back on, cleaning up and helping people in the ninth ward. So we felt really lucky, like everything could be back to normal in a few days.
Then on Tuesday, we started hearing a lot of really dismal news. We were hearing about houses completely under water in other parts of the city. We were hearing about the water flowing toward Uptown. A nurse came in and said her house was under water. It sounded like some of the places really near our house were completely under water, too. We heard that the neighborhood right next to us, the St. Bernard/seventh ward area, had been pretty badly hit and that this store called Circle Foods had water up to its arches. So Merv and I started to realize, "Oh, shit, our place might be under water too."
That was also the day they started rationing food. There were a lot of people in the hospital--staff people, staff people's family, patients, and patients' family members. There wasn't enough food, especially when you're trying to feed a baby or when you're trying to split it into three portions.
Merv went to a nearby grocery store with some other new dads from the floor. The guys came back carrying these big bags of groceries and I said, "Oh my God, you were able to get to a grocery store? There was one open?" They were like, "Kinda." They said everyone was grabbing stuff--black, white, even cops. It didn't matter.
While Merv was at the store, he heard that the A & P owner over on 19th Street had opened his doors and said, "Take whatever you want, just don't wreck the store." It seemed like it was one of those things everyone was doing in order to recover. People were just taking what they needed. Although, to be honest, I think the liquor went first in most of the stores. The liquor and the cigarettes.
From my window I saw these police loading up on boxes of Cheese-Its, and cases of Powerade and barbequing. Apparently, there were a couple of purse snatchings and muggings on the first floor of the hospital, so they had called in the cops.
There was a lot of talk about leaving but then the doctors came in and said, "Don't even think about it. We want you to stay and if there's a problem we will make sure that everyone gets out." So there was this sense that we would be med-evac'ed out if the water got too high.
We had the baby in the room with us all day. It was hot, maybe 95 degrees, and he was panting like crazy. We had him down to a diaper and he was still too hot and couldn't sleep. Some of the other moms thought all the babies should go down to a different part of the hospital where there was still a working generator and air conditioning. I was reluctant because the nursery was so crazy. Every time I walked in, there would be all these babies wailing because the staff couldn't get to them all. I felt it would be a better mothering decision to have Hector with me. Everyone thought I was being totally retarded. Finally, the nurses convinced me that it was important that he sleep in air conditioning.
We woke up Wednesday to reports that all the babies had been airlifted out as a precautionary measure. I saw all these mothers at the nursing station who looked like they were ready to riot. It turned out it was all false, a total rumor; they had just airlifted seven babies who were in the intensive care unit. There were so much rumors going around. People are shooting each other at the Superdome. People are jumping from the balconies. There's a riot in OPP--you know, Orleans Parish Prison.
I went down to the nursery to check on Hector. He had been slumbering really well and I was holding him, just kind of hanging out in the cool air. All of a sudden, there was an impromptu nurses meeting which was led by this head nurse, Miss Charlotte. There were no uniforms left in the hospital and she was dressed in a tiny tank top and these little shorts. Everyone was dressed like that. Miss Charlotte gave this passionate speech, saying, "Okay, it's up to us to keep this hospital running. I know you guys are tired, but you're doing a great job. Everyone here has worked hard. I just want to see a show of hands of people who can stay on. If you have to go, go. I'm not making any judgments."
One nurse said she had to take her elderly mom and leave town. The other nurses were saying, "Melanie, we know you need to do that. Leave us here. We'll take care of the patients." Others were saying, "You can count on me to stay." So it seemed like we were in there for the long haul.
I went up stairs, through this crazy part of the hospital that was flooded and completely dark. When I finally got back to our room, this doctor I had never seen before walks in and says, "Miss Reckdahl, you're one of the healthiest patients here. You've got five minutes to leave."
I said "What? I don't understand."
He said, "We're getting all the healthy patients out immediately." He was really being an ass about it. Up until then, everyone had been so nice. All through the hurricane no one pulling this ego thing. And now here it was. I didn’t know what to do, but I told him I had to go get my baby.
Merv wasn't in the room. He had gone off to charge his phone, and a bunch of nurses had sent their phones with him. I didn't know where to find him and now here's this doctor saying we have five minutes to leave, do we need a ride to shelter? At that point, when you talked "shelter," it meant either the Superdome or the Convention Center.
The doctor said, "You've got to think of this as a war situation. You've got to act fast."
I'm standing there, completely hormonal and ready to bawl my eyes out. There were four or five other patients on that floor who didn't have cars. Merv and I had borrowed my friend's Saturn to get to the hospital, but we hadn't had a chance to put any gas in it. I thought maybe someone would have some extra gas but it became clear pretty quickly that was not going to happen.
Then the nurses decided they would take some patients, and this delivery nurse said she would drive us to Baton Rouge. So we were went running though these hallways with a bag of diapers and formula, and a few things we'd packed for the hospital. As we were getting ready to leave, there was a lot of talk about how there had been a bunch of carjackings. People were saying, "If anybody approaches your car, drive over them." The cops who were guarding the doors told us they were hearing that the Crescent City Connection, the only highway route, was going to be shut down soon. So there was a lot of fear.
When we got out of the parking ramp and turned on to the street, the water wasn't very high--mostly it just went up to the undercarriage. But there were tons of people on the freeway bridge walking along, pushing their possessions in grocery carts and cobbled-together things with wheels. Some people were stopping to rest under the bridge. Everyone looked really miserable and here we were in a car. I felt really guilty on one hand, but I felt really lucky on the other.
Once we got on the bridge to Baton Rouge, the trip only took us about an hour. We had to stop once for Merv to change a tire that blew out. The nurse dropped us off at the airport. She gave us $20 so that we could get something to eat and a shirt that I could wear because I only had a tank top. She was such an angel.
When we got near to Baton Rouge, Merv reached my sister on the cell phone. She booked a flight for the next day. When we got to the Delta gate, right away they put us on standby to Atlanta. By the time we got to Atlanta, we both looked pretty bad, like we had gotten out of jail, carrying these plastic bags. Suddenly, we're being loaded on to first class, sitting in our raggedy bags and our dirty clothes. It was cool, it was really sweet.
When we first got to Tempe, we couldn't reach anyone with a 504 area code. But pretty quickly, most of the journalists I know were accounted for. They are mostly white and middle class or higher, so they were able to make plans. They had cars. They could book a hotel.
Our musician friends mostly come from the poorest parts of towns, and a lot of them have apartments in the projects or nearby. At first, when we started searching for those guys, we got mixed reports. Since then we've heard from a lot of them.
Today, we got a call from a friend who had just found out about the baby. He was in a car full of people heading out of New Orleans, totally drunk and psyched to be getting out. We had thought some of those guys might be gone because no one had heard from them. So it was a good moment.
A lot of people are staying in the state, waiting for New Orleans to open back up. I don't think we are going to do that.