Merv Campbell remembers the sound Katrina made as it bore down around him.
“It’s like a boat,” he says, making a deep buzzing sound down the phone from his home in New Orleans. “It’s non-stop. The sound of the wind would scare you alone.”
Merv and his partner Katy were sheltering inside Touro Hospital in uptown New Orleans when the massive storm made landfall at daybreak on August 29, 2005. Only a day earlier, Katy had given birth to the couple’s first child, a son they named Hector, and the family found themselves marooned.
“We were hearing windows busting open on the upper floors so [hospital staff] made everyone in the outside rooms get in the hallways,” Merv says. “They pushed the beds into the hallway because debris was coming in through the windows.”
“You looked out [the windows] and you could see all kinds of things flying in the air. All kinds of things.”
The Category 5 hurricane was one of the deadliest in the country’s history, with more than 1,800 people killed in the storm and the floods that followed. New Orleans, where the couple lived, was 80 per cent submerged by water after the city’s levees broke in what was described as “the worst civil engineering disaster in US history.”
As streets and houses filled with water, many people were forced to take refuge on roofs and in trees while they waited for help, and many died before help arrived. Kris Sperry, a medical examiner who worked to identify the bodies, described the full scale of the devastation in an interview with CNN shortly after Katrina struck.
“Decomposing bodies and skeletons will be recovered, probably for years,” he said. “Bodies are buried under rubble, there are bodies in attics.”
Before the storm
Katy Reckdahl, a journalist, first met “Kid” Merv Campbell, a jazz musician, when she moved to New Orleans in 1999. The couple had set up a life together and was living in a second-floor apartment in the French Quarter, preparing for their first child, when the storm approached in 2005. In a blog post later that year, Katy recounted their indecision about whether to leave town.
“All day Saturday, people were getting ready to evacuate,” she wrote. “Everyone you saw on 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 into labor at any moment.”
“They pushed the beds into the hallway because debris was coming in through the windows.”
Katy went into labor later that night and the couple drove to Touro hospital where Hector was born in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Merv says other newborns at the hospital who were deemed more at-risk were being airlifted out of the hospital on Tuesday morning but thankfully Hector was healthy and the family were able to stay together.
He says the hospital was well prepared and the mood was mostly calm inside but the extreme conditions – levees in New Orleans broke after Katrina struck and the city flooded – eventually made it impossible to stay.
“On Tuesday we could hear the water in the drain and on Wednesday the water was coming down the street and they told us we had an hour to get our stuff together and evacuate,” he says.
A nurse from the hospital drove them to an airport in the nearby city of Baton Rouge and they flew to safety in Arizona. In the aftermath of the storm, about one million people fled the city while an estimated 100,000 stayed.
It wasn’t until they left New Orleans that that Merv and Katy realised the scale of destruction there.
“We didn’t know the mayhem of what was going on in the city until we got to Arizona,” Merv says.
“We didn’t get no news, nothing.”
“When we got to Arizona – my god – what we saw on TV was…amazing.”
“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 into labor at any moment.”
“I was totally distraught. We worried about our close friends and whether they were OK.”
The storm had affected large numbers of cities across the Gulf Coast and more than 1,800 people were killed.
Louisiana was one of the worst-affected regions, with hundrends of thousands of homes left without electricity and widespread flooding meaning many rescues and evacuations had to be conducted by boat.
Makeshift shelters were set up in cities across the region and images of people – desperate and suddenly homeless – were broadcast around the world.
The couple stayed in Arizona for about a year before eventually returning to New Orleans. Despite being born and raised in the city, Merv says there was a time when he considered leaving it behind for good.
“At one point, I didn’t want to come back, I just wanted to keep going,” he says.
“But then, God has a way of doing things and now I would never leave.”
Hector, now 9, has been told the full story of his unusual entry into the world but might not appreciate the high stakes until later in life.
“He’s bigger than me now,” Merv says with a laugh. “I’m not a big fella but he’s almost taller than me now.”
“He’s an A-student. He plays a little bit of trombone and plays the piano. He wants to be a basketball player.”
“At one point, I didn’t want to come back, I just wanted to keep going.”
But almost 10 years on, the drama of that hospital stay is still vivid in Merv’s mind.
“It’s like a movie, starring you!” he says.
“Bam! Camera! Action! What would you do right now?
“Panic?” I offer.
Merv lets out a deep laugh.
“There wasn’t no time to panic.”