Meet Hurricane Katrina’s ‘Youngest Survivor’

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Rebekah Crosby and her sons, Noah, 8 (L), and Witt, 11. Noah was born via an embryo that was rescued from a flooded fertility clinic after Hurricane Katrina. (Photo: Bryan Tarnowski for Yahoo Parenting)

Eight-year-old Noah Benton Markham is known for his powerful imagination and storytelling prowess. However, Noah himself may be the most breathtaking story of all: born 16 months after Hurricane Katrina to a mother who evacuated and a police officer father who stayed, from a frozen embryo that underwent its own dramatic rowboat rescue.

“I’m Katrina’s youngest survivor!” Noah proudly tells people. “I’m famous!”

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When the winds began to rise, back in 2005, physical therapist Rebekah Crosby, then 30, wasn’t thinking about her frozen embryos, stored at the Fertility Institute in New Orleans. A gulf hurricane named Katrina was gathering speed. Her first concern was her family’s safety.

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Rebekah lived in Covington, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, in a home surrounded by old-growth trees. She had a 1-year-old son, Glen Witter “Witt” Jr. Her then-husband, Glen Markham Sr., was a New Orleans police officer. He would ride out the storm on duty in the city. She and Witt would be on their own.

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Crosby’s home in Covington, La., where she fled with her son Witt when Katrina hit. (Photo: Rebekah Crosby)

She made the choice of so many mothers: She evacuated to ensure the safety of her son.

Her parents lived an hour north in Angie, La., a rural village of 200 people. Assuming the town was far enough away to be safe, she packed three or four days of clothes and supplies in her car, including milk in a cooler for Witt. “Nobody thought Katrina would be what Katrina was,” Rebekah tells Yahoo Parenting. “We had no idea how hard it would hit.”

But the storm shook the small village. Her parents’ windows shattered. The power flickered, then failed. Rain pounded the roof. The family hunkered down inside, three generations huddled around a transistor radio, waiting for news to cut through the dark, dank heat and uncertainty. Witt stuck by his mother like a shadow, scared of the dark, miserable from the heat. There would be little sleep for anyone.

“The next morning we heard that New Orleans was flooded,” Rebekah remembers. “My husband was a first responder. I didn’t know where he was or if he was safe.” The last thing he said was that his squad was to hunker down on the West Bank of New Orleans. The building they planned to stay in was all glass.

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Rebekah Crosby’s subdivision after it was hit by Katrina. The neighbors had to cut through all the downed trees to exit. (Photo: Rebekah Crosby)

The sun beat down as the family started to clean the debris and damage. There were no stores open nearby and no way to get Witt more milk. The family had no water. With heat rising and no relief in sight, Rebekah realized she had to evacuate again. She needed supplies.

After the sun set, mother and son drove four hours northwest, to Rebekah’s sister’s home in Alexandria, La. With power lines out for miles, the night was as black as they’d ever seen. “It was complete darkness everywhere during the drive, very eerie,” Rebekah tells Yahoo Parenting. “We didn’t start to see lights until between McComb and Natchez.” Signs of the storm’s violence dotted their passage. She drove carefully through the inky blackness, using her headlights to avoid downed trees that had been chain-sawed to let cars pass.

Their arrival on her doorstep was the first word her sister had of how family members fared. It would be days before they learned that their younger brother, a Hammond, La., police officer, had been hit in both legs by a ricocheting bullet during the storm. She also didn’t hear from her husband until after she arrived in Alexandria.  

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Witt and Noah, brothers. (Photo: Bryan Tarnowski for Yahoo Parenting)

The first words came by text. “R U okay?” he wrote. He never received her response. Nearly 3 million people along the Gulf lost phone service during Katrina, and Glen’s battery died before her response got through. Finally, he got to a working phone. Rebekah could hear helicopters searching for survivors in the background as he spoke.

“At this point, I didn’t have a thought about embryos, nothing,” she recalls. “There was still so much left to do.”

Starting with making life as normal as possible for Witt, now an energetic, adventurous 13-month-old, as they moved from house to house. Rebekah and her son stayed in three different places before they made it home: her parents’, her sister’s, and with Glen’s family in Prairieville, La. That would be the first time they reunited with Glen in person after he was given a few days off from rescue work. “All the moving was horrible!” Rebekah remembers ruefully. “Witt was walking at that age and into everything. Imagine trying to childproof three homes.”

Schedules and sleep were irregular and interrupted. Like so many across the Gulf, evacuated families crammed together with families farther from the coast. Any semblance of privacy or schedules was a thing of the past. “At night everyone just found places to sleep,” says Rebekah, “and not everyone went to bed at a 1-year-old’s bedtime.” Interrupted naps often left Witt cranky and in need of extra attention.

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Glen’s parents’ home post-Katrina. (Photo: Rebekah Crosby)

Getting back home helped. In the months that followed, Rebekah and Glen’s one-story home became the family refuge as the long recovery process began. Falling trees caused some damage, but nothing irreparable. Many of their family members were not so lucky. They lost everything.

“We had sixteen people living there,” she said. “Seventeen when Glen could get home from New Orleans. We didn’t have a big house, but you know, you make it work. It wasn’t even a question of should or could we. You made it work. Because that’s what you did.”  

Family had always been important to Rebekah and Glen. Their own journey to parenthood started almost a decade before Katrina. After trying for years to have children, they had gone to fertility specialists in 2003. They longed to be parents. In vitro fertilization offered a potential way to achieve this dream.

In 2003, the couple produced seven embryos. The clinic implanted two immediately. One wasn’t viable. The other became their first son, Witt. He celebrated his first birthday the week before Katrina hit. The clinic froze the remaining five embryos, storing them for whenever the couple was ready to expand their family. If they had been destroyed in the storm, Rebekah and Glen would have to start the long, expensive process all over again.

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Rebekah Crosby and Glen Markham Sr. with their two sons, Witt and Noah. (Photo: Rebekah Crosby)

When she finally thought to call about her embryos, Rebekah didn’t have a lot of hope. She didn’t know how the clinic itself fared during Katrina, but she figured her embryos were long gone. When the levees protecting New Orleans failed, approximately 80 percent of the city was flooded. New Orleans East, where the embryos were stored, was hit by water on all sides. “I honestly didn’t see how the embryos would be OK,” she recalls.

When she called, the phone rang and rang. An answering machine picked up. Assuming the worst, she left a message. Days later, she received a surprising call.

Her embryos — her potential children — had been rescued.

Embryos are difficult to make and precarious to preserve. The smallest change in their environment can impact or destroy their viability. To prepare for the storm, clinic staff had moved the frozen embryos to the third floor. They also covered them with liquid nitrogen. These steps would keep the embryos dry if water entered the clinic, and help maintain the required 320 degrees below zero if the hospital lost power.

After the levees failed, eight feet of water sloshed through the clinic. Being on the third floor saved Rebekah and Glen’s embryos from drowning, but an equally urgent problem materialized: power outages. There was no electricity. The heat topped 100 degrees. Days went by. Evacuated clinic staff knew the liquid nitrogen would buffer the embryos only so long. They had to act fast.

The clinic called Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco for help. On Sept. 11, almost two weeks after Katrina hit, state troopers and police officers staged a floodwater rescue. Using flat-bottom boats to keep the embryos upright, they floated through the hallways, recovering the embryos and holding them steady to cause as little damage as possible as they eased back to dry land with their precious cargo. “They sent me a video of the rescue,” Rebekah said, recounting the story. “It’s amazing to watch this video and think my Noah was in one of those boats!”

Secure in the knowledge that they might be able to have more children, the family continued to focus on the immediate task at hand: recovery. Their heavily wooded community had major damage and debris. Trees, pine straw, and debris covered their yard. Snakes, spiders, and other creatures hid everywhere. Winds had pounded so hard as the storm passed that many tree limbs weren’t on the ground, they were driven into it, as deep as 2 feet down.

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Rebekah lying in a hospital bed before her C-section. “I didn’t know the sex of my baby (Noah), so I was eagerly awaiting that and nervous about the surgery,” Rebekah tells Yahoo Parenting. (Photo: Rebekah Crosby)

“Every street had debris piled 8 to 10 feet high of tree parts, it looked like a wooded war zone,” Rebekah says. The National Guard moved in, giving out water and MREs. “Churches gave away food, clothes, and water to those that needed it. As you can imagine we had a lot of mouths to feed, and everything helped!”

Nine months later, Rebekah and Glen decided it was time for the ultimate test: unfreezing some embryos to try to get pregnant again. Glen had returned to a normal schedule with the New Orleans Police Department. Their extended families had found new homes and started rebuilding their lives. Witt had turned 2. “It just felt like the right time to do it,” Rebekah says. “With all of the uncertainty and life-altering changes that Katrina brought, I knew having another baby would add so much joy to our lives and ground our family in such a beautiful way.”

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(Photo: Bryan Tarnowski for Yahoo Parenting)

Although their embryos were safe, odds were stacked against the couple. When they first started the process, doctors gave them, at best, a 50 percent chance of any embryo being viable. That was in ideal situations, well before the levee failure subjected the embryos to two weeks of 100-degree heat, plus jostling as they moved by boat.

But knowing they were ready for another child, the couple leaned on their faith. “I had all my faith in Jesus Christ. If it was meant for me to have another child, it was going to happen regardless of what the embryos went through, what I went through,” she said. “It gave me peace.”

Nine months after Katrina hit, Rebekah became pregnant with one of the embryos state troopers saved from Katrina floodwaters. Noah Benton Markham was born nine months later, on Jan. 17, 2007. His name is homage to his journey, taken from the biblical story of Noah and the ark.

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Rebekah Crosby and her sons, Witt and newborn Noah. (Photo: Rebekah Crosby)

Today, Noah’s personality reflects his story’s miraculous ending — or rather, beginning. He still lives in Covington, the town from which his brother and mother evacuated. He is a carefree 8-year-old who treats each day as a new opportunity for adventure. He loves to talk to anyone, adult or child, new friend or old. He spends so many hours building with Legos that his mother wonders if he might become an engineer. This month, he started third grade in a new school, Lancaster Elementary. Classmates love the way he tells stories.

His brother, Witt, loves to run and play sports, and has a special bond with Noah. The boys’ connection is so strong that friends joke they are fraternal twins. In fact, biologically, they are. Both of their embryos came from the same batch conceived in 2003. The same batch that was saved after the storm.

“They were conceived the same day, but born two years apart,” Rebekah notes. She pauses. “But they also have a bond because of what they went through. They are a part of history.”

Both boys know about Katrina and understand how their family journeyed through it. Noah is quick to tell people they can Google him, proud to be part of a history he can’t remember but that will remember him. When they are older, their parents will expose them to more of the imagery and fill in the details of devastation and loss that today the children understand only in broad strokes.

“I think about when I was in school and the history books I read,” says Rebekah, “and that when my kids are in high school they are going to read about the history of New Orleans and how it’s going to be so special for them. Their mom evacuated. Witt evacuated. Their dad rescued people. Other people rescued Noah. He is a part of history. He beat the odds.”

She pauses. “Katrina is a tale of heartbreak for so many. So many. I feel privileged to share our piece of history, a story that’s uplifting. We struggled, but we’re also blessed. Noah beat the odds. His is a life that will be about beating the odds.”

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