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Even the way Kellie Mathas got pregnant was idyllic. "On my 34th birthday, in December 2004, I released a red balloon and wished that I'd conceive," she says. "And by Jan. 6, I had a positive pregnancy test." At the time, Mathas and her husband of 12 years, Allen, had good jobs (he was a marketing analyst, she an event planner) and lived in a pleasant upscale house 20 minutes from downtown New Orleans.
Mathas' baby was due in early September, and Saturday morning, Aug. 27, Mathas and her husband woke up to learn that a huge hurricane was coming their way.
The hurricane, of course, was Katrina.
On Sunday, Mathas was having mild contractions, so she and her husband boarded up their house and headed for New Orleans. "My mother has an office in a building connected to Memorial Medical Center, so we figured we'd camp out there for a few days," she says. That night, the hurricane hit. "The building began to shake and rock, and the wind was like nothing we'd ever seen," Mathas recalls. "We never thought we'd survive."
By Monday afternoon, they assumed the worst was over. "No one knew that the levees had been breached," Mathas says. Soon, the backup generators failed, the temperature shot up over 100 degrees, and Mathas began to dehydrate. "I kept thinking, this must be what hell feels like," she says.
And then the water began to rise. By midday Tuesday, the medical center was all but cut off, and temperatures inside soared to 110 degrees. (Forty-five people would eventually die there.) Mathas and her husband saw no choice but to make a desperate drive to Baton Rouge where there were still functioning hospitals. "It's still hard for me to talk about," Mathas says. "When we drove, it was a scene out of 'War of the Worlds.'"
Miraculously, they arrived in Baton Rouge unscathed, and on Monday, Sept. 5--Labor Day--Cole McGregor was born. The next day, Mathas and her husband checked on their house, found it still standing, then returned to the hospital. They stayed in Baton Rouge and didn't go home for a month. In the meantime, Mathas was slammed by a killer combination of postpartum depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Now, Mathas says, she is starting to heal with the help of a psychiatrist and a therapist, twice-daily long walks and reaching out to mothers who have dealt with similar traumas. "It really helped me to talk to women who'd been through postpartum depression," she says. "They helped me know I was going to get better." Mathas says she's also hoping to find or form a support group for women who gave birth during or after Katrina. "There are a lot of scared women right now in New Orleans," she says. "Our city is still devastated, and it's taking all of us a while to recover."