Like his biblical namesake, Noah Markham was rescued from a great flood.
But he didn’t ride out the deluge in an ark, tending to pairs of animals. Instead he was carried out, in a straw placed in a tank filled with liquid nitrogen to keep it cool.
Noah, now 8, was one of many frozen embryos in tanks that were rescued from the third floor of Lakeland Medical Center in eastern New Orleans on Sept. 11, 2005. He wasn’t born until Jan. 16, 2007, some 16 months later.
Of course, he doesn’t remember any of that. But his mother, Rebekah, does, vividly.
Rebekah and Glen, a New Orleans police officer, lived in Covington before the storm. The couple struggled with infertility for years before they went to the Fertility Institute on Bullard Avenue. There, the couple opted to try in vitro fertilization, and in August 2004, their son Witt was born.
Rebekah and Glen knew they wanted their family to grow, but then Katrina hit when Witt was a year old. Rebekah and her son left their Covington home for her childhood home in Angie. Glen, as a police officer, was in the city.
Rebekah was worried about their remaining embryos.
“I knew that hospital was underwater,” she said of Lakeland Medical Center, where the IVF lab was located and where the embryo tanks had been taken to keep them safe.
Rebekah was right. The hospital, like much of eastern New Orleans, was under several feet of water.
Her worries were shared by Sissy Sartor, a doctor at the Fertility Institute, which was next door to the hospital. She knew the tanks had been moved to the third floor of the hospital, but she worried that the lack of power or the high winds might have damaged them.
So she called state Rep. John Alario, who helped arrange a rescue operation.
A group of National Guard members, State Police, clinic workers and men from the Illinois Conservation Police launched an embryo rescue mission on Sept. 11. They rolled in trucks up to Chef Menteur Highway, where they launched several boats.
“It was a beautiful morning, very sultry and still. You could just hear helicopters,” Sartor recalled. “You are riding up Bullard, but there is no street, just an ocean of water with the tops of houses peeking out.”
When they went into the hospital, they found the tanks intact and still cold — vital to keeping the embryos frozen and viable for later implantation.
The men loaded the tanks onto boats and took them back to a staging area near the Morial Convention Center. Others then took them to the clinic’s Metairie location, where their liquid nitrogen could be topped up and they could be kept safely.
Then they began notifying parents, including Rebekah Markham.
“I thought they were probably gone,” she said of the embryos. But when she got the call, it was a bit of brightness in a dark time.
“That was the first little bit of good news,” she said.
Several months later, the Markhams decided things had calmed down enough for them to try again to get pregnant, and the embryo that became Noah was implanted. It was a rough pregnancy, but Rebekah got through it. Just one thing remained.
“I didn’t find out the gender of either one of my babies,” she said. She had a girl’s name picked out, but nothing in case the baby was a boy.
The night before Noah was born, she was in the hospital when her sister-in-law called.
“She told me that it was put on her heart that he be called Noah because of the rescue and all he had been through,” Rebekah recalled. “It just felt right.”
Today, Noah is one of the youngest Katrina survivors, but not the only one with a similar story. Several other children have been born from the embryos rescued that day, according to Sartor, including a pair of twins.
Today, Noah is typical for a child his age. He is affectionate, worships his older brother, has a vivid imagination and asks a lot of questions, his mother said.
He plays sports but doesn’t have a particular favorite, and he has a fondness, like many children his age, for the iPad.
“He’s always looking up YouTube videos on how to make things,” Rebekah said. “He’s very interested in how things work.”
He’s also a bit of a daredevil. Anything Witt can do, Noah thinks he can do, and Rebekah laughingly recounted his multiple trips to the emergency room for stitches and treatments for other minor injuries.
And what does he know about Katrina?
Not much, his mother said.
“He knows it was a lot of water that flooded the city and that there is something special about how he made it through,” she said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.