Goodbye, Phoenix

A reporter returns to New Orleans

I flew into Phoenix with two light-blue trash bags as luggage.

My son Hector was born in New Orleans early on Sunday, August 28, 2005, 24 hours before Hurricane Katrina and a faulty levee system devastated the city.

Our new little family — Hector, my boyfriend Merv, and I — weathered the storm in Touro Infirmary, a hospital in uptown New Orleans, then stayed there for two more days without electricity and with dwindling supplies. The nurses wheeled our beds into the hallways on Monday to get away from the windows that were shattering from the hurricane-force winds. But afterward, I walked slowly downstairs in my slippers. Aside from a bunch of downed trees and some broken windows, everything seemed fine.

"We should be headed home in a few days," I thought. At that point, no one knew about the broken levees.

Thirty-six hours later, on Wednesday morning, a doctor I hadn't seen before came into my room and said, "Ms. Reckdahl, we are evacuating this hospital and you have five minutes to leave."

We didn't own a car in New Orleans, so our only option, initially, was one of the big shelters, the Superdome or the Convention Center. Fortunately, a labor-and-delivery nurse offered to take us with her to Baton Rouge. She dropped us at the airport there and I called my sister Beth in Tempe, who got us tickets to Sky Harbor. That's why we're here — I had family I could rely on.

After she booked our flight, my sister e-mailed an S.O.S. to her homeowners' association. By the time we arrived, not even a half-day later, her entryway was piled high with diapers, baby clothes, and baby gear. Beth herself supplied us with home-cooked meals, fresh underwear and clothes, round-the-clock baby care, and appointments with her doctor.

We were some of the first Katrina evacuees in the area, and probably the only ones with a 3-day-old baby. At one point, a TV crew just pulled up in front of the house and rang the doorbell. The phone rang off the hook with gig offers for Merv, a jazz trumpeter. (A local couple even bought Merv a horn, since his trumpet was left behind in our New Orleans apartment when we evacuated directly from the hospital.) Then a member of Valley Presbyterian Church in Paradise Valley read about us in the paper. His church adopted us and our friends Ann and Jeff, put us all in housing, and paid our rent. Soon Merv and Jeff began playing their horns at Sunday services. The church gave us both a safety net and some semblance of community.

Other evacuees saw similar generosity. Phoenix was also a step up in other ways. In New Orleans, failing schools, violence, and meager salaries are more the rule than the exception. Here, evacuee kids landed in better schools. Teenage sons escaped bad peer groups. In general, jobs seemed to pay better.

Like Nelda Millon told me, "We never knew how poor we were, until we came here."

New Orleans is a minimum-wage town, and many of my neighbors there were working two or three different "hustles" — short-term jobs. Each morning, as I bicycled to my job as a reporter at Gambit Weekly, the alternative paper in New Orleans, I'd often stop and chat with my next-door neighbor. One day, he might be painting houses. The next day, he'd be hauling trash or spraying for termites. In the fall, almost all of the hustle-men I knew were doing "the election boogie," going door-to-door with literature and putting up candidates' yard signs for New Orleans' infamous elections. All of these jobs came by word of mouth.

In the last neighborhood where Merv and I lived, nearly half of the households made less than $10,000, according to U.S. Census data. So people stuck together to survive. When I had $4.53 in my checking account, the corner grocery gave me credit. When I was pregnant and money was tight, our neighbors brought over containers of red beans and handed us hot-sausage sandwiches fresh off the grill. I wasn't worried about day care, because — like most people I knew — my child had trusted friends and relatives who were ready to take him.

When all of us evacuated, we lost our biggest safety net — our community. As I look around, I see that we're not all dealing with that loss well. Some use drugs. Some drink too much. Others are often near tears or angry. A few are just shut down, quiet all the time.

People I meet here in Phoenix sometimes say things like, "This experience must have pulled you closer together as a family." That was probably true at first, when all of us were grateful to be alive.

But now, almost all the evacuees I know are under tremendous stress. Every week, it seems, some mental-health organization issues a new report about how Katrina left behind a harvest of untreated depression, anger, and doomed relationships.

I'd read statistics about how many relationships deteriorated after Katrina. But I wasn't prepared for mine to fall apart until it did, a few months ago.

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