New Life in the Shadow of Hurricane Katrina
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Having a baby is a life-changing event, but imagine giving birth in New Orleans the day before Hurricane Katrina. The levees broke while journalist Katy Reckdahl was in the hospital with her newborn son. After two days, she made it out to Phoenix with her family, but she moved back to the Big Easy to cover the storm's aftermath. Now she's written about New Orleans' survival and trauma in the new book "City Adrift: New Orleans Before and After Katrina."
Ms. KATY RECKDAHL (Contributor Writer, "City Adrift: New Orleans Before and After Katrina"): Thanks so much for having me, Farai.
CHIDEYA: Well, we can't start anywhere but your story. Just tell me a little bit about what was happening as, you know, you were about to bring new life into this world.
Ms. RECKDAHL: Right. I wasn't due for two weeks, but I had started to show signs of early labor. And so when everyone else was packing up their cars and getting ready to evacuate town, I had talked to my doctors and determined that I would be staying in town. And so I was just walking to the store to get popsicles when I went into labor, and I was watching everybody else pack up and get ready to leave.
CHIDEYA: So what were you thinking as a mother and a journalist?
Ms. RECKDAHL: You know, it's weird because I used to string a lot for the New York Times. They didn't have a bureau here at that time, and so I had been on call to string. And I thought, well, I'm fine. I'm, you know, I'm big, but I can still string. I really thought that - unlike everyone else - that the hurricane would just come close and miss. But when there were so many people, even in the French Quarter, when I walked to the grocery store on the French Quarter, they were leaving. And I thought, huh, the Quarter usually doesn't really pack up like this. And I…
CHIDEYA: Because it's some of the highest ground in the city?
Ms. RECKDAHL: Exactly, exactly. So I started to get a little concerned, and I also knew that if I wasn't - my doctors had told me if I wasn't in labor, I wouldn't be able to get into the hospital, which has been traditionally been considered one of the safe spaces in the city. Traditionally, if you're in the housing projects or in the hospitals, you're considered all right if you're in New Orleans. And so I thought if I could get into the hospital, I'd be all right, but I wasn't due for two weeks. So I was a little bit nervous about that. And then I went into labor, so that was on a Saturday night and the storm came on Monday.
CHIDEYA: So you're in the hospital, everyone's panicking. Are you ever afraid, you know what, we're not going to make it out of here?
Ms. RECKDAHL: There was a time when it seemed as though we couldn't really get a lot of the news about what was going on. My baby's daddy was - smoked cigarettes, and that was actually one of the best ways for people to communicate was out by this little smoking corner. So he got a lot of information from people who were smokers who worked in the hospital.
And so he knew a lot. When he would come back from having a cig break, he would actually know a lot about what was going on in the city. But it was really hard to get the information, and we started to see that the food was being rationed. The generators were failing all over the hospital. I think there was one generator left when we evacuated on Wednesday. It was a little nerve-wracking. I was taking notes on a notebook, because I didn't know what else to do, you know.
CHIDEYA: You know, we unfortunately have so little time left to talk to you. I want to flash forward. You have come back to the city. What do you write about in "City Adrift"?
Ms. RECKDAHL: I write about the social service response in the first week after the hurricane, which is when everyone - you saw the picture, the people suffering in the Convention Center and in the Super Dome.
CHIDEYA: So how do you compare what happened in terms of services that people got immediately during and after the hurricane and the flooding and what's happened since then?
Ms. RECKDAHL: Well, I think some of the same groups are being ignored now. Some of the same people who were in the Super Dome and the Convention Center are having really a hard time getting back to New Orleans. And I think that it's a chronic problem. I think it indicates that we are less able to help a certain group of people. And I think it has to do with race, it has to do with class, it has to do with not listening to people who make less money and who are a different skin color.
CHIDEYA: As both a journalist and as a parent, are you able to do what you need to do in New Orleans? Are you able to raise your family? Are you able to report, or at some points is it impossible?
Ms. RECKDAHL: It was difficult at first when I got back. There's a real childcare shortage, and so I had to cobble that together. But New Orleans is a really great city as far as people. There have been traditionally such family networks helping each other with childcare that I was able to tap into a lot of help right in my neighborhood. And it's spotty sometimes and that makes it difficult, but I've been able to work it out. I'm not saying that I haven't stayed up late to try to get stories in, but it has worked. And I'm relieved to be here in New Orleans, raising my son here like we planned.
CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Katy, wish we had more time. We'd love to have you back on. Thank you so much.
Ms. RECKDAHL: It's good to be here. Thanks a lot. I'm a listener, so I appreciate being on your show.
CHIDEYA: Thanks again.
Ms. RECKDAHL: Thanks very much.
CHIDEYA: Katy Reckdahl was a freelance journalist in New Orleans, and she contributed to the book "City Adrift: New Orleans Before and After Katrina."
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Tomorrow: African-Americans in the immigration debate.