"Just like that, it can be gone": The babies of Hurricane Katrina unearth trauma of lost childhoods

HBO's "Katrina Babies" director Edward Buckles Jr. told Salon how Hurricane Katrina changed his life when he was 12

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published September 3, 2022 2:59PM (EDT)

Edward Buckles Jr., director of "Katrina Babies." (HBO)
Edward Buckles Jr., director of "Katrina Babies." (HBO)

America is always referred to as a melting pot – a special place full of different people from different walks of life – that live in unity, peace, and harmony while having the opportunity to advance and eventually live out their wildest dreams. These kinds of American ideas have historically been promoted by leaders, politicians and even people who actually made it out of though situations. These kinds of ideas do hold weight in certain situations and have been true for some people, but just because you found success doesn't always necessarily mean another person will. What happens when you don't make it out?  

What happens when you get caught up in the system, make a mistake or just never really figure out how to get over the hump. As a person who has been poor in this country – I will tell you that all of the glittery "melting pot," talk goes out of the window when a bill is due. Successful people tend to look down on you, and law enforcement has no problem ignoring the reality that may have pushed you into a bad situation and locking you up. My story isn't special; it's shared by many. One of the greatest examples of how America will turn its back on you, happened during Hurricane Katrina.   

Seventeen years ago, a Category 5 hurricane swept through New Orleans and the surrounding area killing over 1,800 people and leaving one million people displaced. The bulk of those residents couldn't afford to evacuate before the storm and were forced to after. Those hundreds of thousands of people weren't welcomed with open arms or called family members affiliated with the mythological melting pot when they reached other cites – America called them refugees as if they weren't even citizens. Director and New Orleans native Edward Buckles Jr. captured the pain of what being called a refugee in your own country felt like in his new HBO documentary "Katrina Babies."

Buckles, a first-time director was only 12 years old when Katrina hit, and it changed his life forever. His proximity to other New Orleans residents who had to deal with the aftermath of the storm, in combination with his own family and personal experience, made him the perfect person to articulate the new New Orleans in comparison to the culture and traditions that were washed away. Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with him here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about how Buckles and his family are still adjusting almost 20 years later and what outsiders should really know about what happened to the city during one of the worst storms of our country's history. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Congratulations on your documentary "Katrina Babies." I felt like it was both informative and inspiring. In 2022, we have some space between the storm and where we are right now. What do you think it means to be a Katrina baby now?

I think it ranges. When I first came up with the title years ago, I wasn't even quite sure what the title's definition was. I wasn't even sure what made a Katrina baby, a Katrina baby. It wasn't until I got on this journey and I interviewed over 20 young people from New Orleans when I really realized that a Katrina baby is somebody who experienced the storm as a child. And if we're speaking from the perspective of the film, they were between the ages of three and 20.

But I think that if I was to define what makes up a Katrina baby today, I would use just people who are seeking healing and people who need to seek healing, and children who need to still recover from the unhealed wounds of Hurricane Katrina. 

How did you choose your subjects? You said you interviewed over 20 people. Everybody couldn't make it, right?

What makes this film so special is that everybody who is interviewed in this project are personal friends of mine. They're either friends or family of mine. That's what made the interview process as smooth as it can be. People felt comfortable enough to become vulnerable and they actually trusted me with their story.

It's funny because I was going to Dillard University when I first came up with this idea, and I remember I needed to find subjects. So, I went on Facebook and I posted, "Yo, I'm looking for people to tell their Hurricane Katrina stories, but I'm looking for people who were children during the storm." And a lot of people reached out, and I kind of just sorted through them, and that's how I found most of my subjects. But again, most of them are my friends and then others were people that they just had very, very interesting stories, and I had to get them.

The animations in the film drew me in. What's the story behind those?

They were created by this artist in Spain. His name is Antony. And he's just brilliant. [Director] Chike Ozah and I worked closely on this piece of the project because both of us, as you can see, are into art. We knew that we wanted to create a type of language in this film when it came to specific stories that allowed people to become a little bit more empathetic in the receiving of these tough stories. 

"Kids who were very young at the age of Katrina don't even know what they looked like as babies."

And something that helped us to make that decision to incorporate animation was the fact that a lot of this stuff we don't have footage for. A lot of documentation was lost of New Orleans life. For example, creating the animation of my family's home. That really brought us back. The animator was really able to go on Google Maps and satellites and see what the neighborhood looked like. So, that really brought us back to being in those homes of pre-Katrina life. So, it's a really special medium that we explore in this film.

When you look at what was lost from Katrina, we think about the people we lost, but for the people who were fortunate enough to survive, you still lost huge pieces of your family history — like grandma's photo book, the basketball trophies, the little certificates you got. All of the things that make up life and is stuff that we pass down to younger people was gone

One of the most common conversations that I had while interviewing the youth of New Orleans was how many people just don't have baby pictures anymore, or kids who were very young at the age of Katrina don't even know what they looked like as babies.

There was no iCloud at that time. 

Exactly. We kind of take for granted the importance of documentation. Just like that, it can be gone. I think that's something that Katrina and making this project has helped me to do, is to re-document our stories and our lives.

I thought that a lot of our stuff was gone because my grandmother archived everything. She had an insane photo collection of family history, and we lost a lot of that. We lost videos and everything. But one random day during this project, my mom just pulls out random photos, originals and copies that she had. So I was able to scan those and just preserve those and actually give some to my family members as well.

I be telling people back in the '80s and '90s, me and my DC friends, we fussed all the time over who was the first to blow up New Balance. And they be like, "DC." We be like, "No, Baltimore." Sometimes I'd be losing them arguments because the dudes at DC was better documentarians. We wasn't flicking it. We was running wild, but we left the Polaroids home. So, I lost the battle.

I get it, man. Because I got some stories like that in New Orleans. I really feel like I was the first dude wearing skinny jeans in New Orleans, but don't nobody believe me. You know what I'm saying? I don't know. I was definitely the first dude with Yeezys in New Orleans. So, I'll probably get a lot of kickback from this, but I was the first dude with Yeezys in New Orleans.

Can you give us a glimpse of what life was like for residents maybe a week or so after the storm stopped?

First of all, it's important to note that people were still being evacuated out of the city a week later. People were still being rescued. Bodies were still being found. So, it's this sense of eeriness. No matter if you're in New Orleans or no matter if you're in your new temporary shelter. I wouldn't call it a home. 

It's a sense of eeriness, but also as a child, I'm 13 years old, and believe it or not, I'm already in school. I'm already in school in this new place. And that's something that I touch on in the film, just how fast life moved on. Although everything was gone and uncertain, we didn't know if or when we were going back home, life moved on. 

So, that was my life. I remember the only thing that I took with me from New Orleans when I evacuated was a few pairs of underwear, obviously my toothbrush and stuff, and maybe two outfits. And I took my football helmet. It was a gold football helmet and some cleats, because I was really excited about that year of playing ball. You know what I'm saying? 

"I wasn't denying my trauma.  I just wasn't calling it out because I didn't realize that I had any."

The first thing that our parents did was they put us in school, literally, and that's when it became real. We was like, "Damn, we've got to go to school out here? I thought that we was going back to the crib." You know what I'm saying? So, I got on the football team because they held a special trial for the Hurricane Katrina survivors, and I got on the football field, and I just remember being a dog. I was always aggressive on the field, but I just remember I was just doing really, really well. And now that I think about it, it's probably because I was unleashing so much pain. I was venting physically on the field. 

That's what life was like for us. And my parents, while we were at school, they were trying to figure out how we're going to get home. My dad had to go get this random job. So, I can't imagine what it was like for them, but I just know that we were still trying to locate family. We were still trying to figure out what was next.

As you talk about moving into that new life after the storm and what that meant, how long did it take for you to realize the amount of trauma you would have to process by just surviving that?

It took a while. It took 16 years. I didn't really realize that I was dealing with trauma from Katrina and other things, being a young Black man from a disenfranchised environment in New Orleans. I'm dealing with all type of trauma, complex trauma. 

It didn't happen until I started making this film. When I started exploring things, healing, and when I started to really put names to things. So, understanding what secondary trauma is from even making this film. Believe it or not, although I am in the film now and although I am the thread of it, I didn't get into the film until last year.


I had been making this film for, what, six years? And I didn't actually become a subject in this film until last year. I wasn't denying my trauma. I just wasn't calling it out because I didn't realize that I had any. Really, I thought that because I evacuated, I was good, but that wasn't the case.

We just be out here living and we don't even really acknowledge it. We just out here living, and then you look up and you like, "Wow, there was a shootout 20 years ago. I was right there."


In the film, some of your friends are talking about their Katrina moments and they get choked up. It's very, very clear that this is the first time they ever even touched on telling that story because no one ever asked them. Your mom even said, "I asked you if you were OK. And you said, 'Yeah.'" I wonder if we can even have a bigger conversation on why trauma is just always overlooked. I know part of it is because we have to survive, and therapy is not something that is normal in our community. But do you think it's anything else?

Yeah, I got a few concepts. I was just talking to the legendary Soledad O'Brien about this yesterday. And I think that it boils down to access and resources. I think that therapy, it's a privilege. It's a privilege to have access to things like therapy and wellness, and it's also not cheap. So, if you think about all of the things that you're trying to figure out, if you are dealing with poverty, therapy just isn't one of those things. It's like, "Nah, I'm good. I'm going to keep it moving." But then also, I think that it's information. 

Most of us don't even have the information or tools to understand that talking about your trauma can help. It took me a very long time to even realize that just simply talking about things could help. I read this stat that said it was a certain percentage of people in New Orleans are less likely to seek out therapy. It's not because we don't want to. It's because we don't know to. 

At the beginning, it wasn't really created for us, you know what I'm saying? So, that's why I always move lightly with just always saying, "OK, well, maybe this Black person from this disenfranchised neighborhood should go to therapy," because I don't think that it's always that simple. I think that sometimes, these things have to be reshaped, so that it can appeal to people like us. 

"The New Orleans that we grew up on, that Big Easy, it's gone."

I just think that there's work to be done, not just from the victim side or not just from the side of the person who's traumatized, but also from the infrastructures and from the systems so that we can understand how to have the resources and tools. And that's what I hope to do with this film, is to offer resources, tools that make sense to us, meeting us where we are. It's not that we don't want to. Again, we just don't know to.

You're absolutely right. I'm 42 years old, so I'm old enough where I've been through Katrina. I've been to New Orleans before. I've been through New Orleans before Katrina, and then I've been to New Orleans a bunch of times after Katrina, and I'm an outsider, and I felt the difference. The vibe doesn't feel the same as it used to feel. And I don't know if that's because maybe I turned up a little bit more when I went when I was younger, or what's happening now, but do you ever feel nostalgic about what the city was before it happened?

Yeah. There's that scene that's in the film where I say, "The New Orleans that we knew was gone." And boy, what a thing to lose. And then it goes into New Orleans nostalgia. I think that that's something that we're still chasing. We're still dressing like the Hot Boys down there. We're still referencing the Hot Boys. 

New Orleans was The Big Easy. New Orleans was Black, mainly Black. So, I think that to see what's happening today with New Orleans, and let me just be clear, we're still there. New Orleans will always be Black as long as we're still there. We're still down there thriving. Yes, we have our hiccups, but we're still there. We're still making noise.


We're still doing our thing. But again, we can never get back what was lost. And in the film, when I say people say that New Orleans is rebuilt but it's not, I'm not talking about physically. I'm talking about the New Orleans that we once knew. That's gone. That energy, that warmness, that spirit is not there anymore. And yes, we are rebuilding something new from our own, I guess, perspective. But the New Orleans that we grew up on, that Big Easy, that era, it's gone.

Then the double-headed monster is when you talked about how it sped up gentrification. And then, the other side of that, one of your film's subjects, Anthony, is talking about being called a refugee as if this isn't our country, right?


Talk about the racism that just fueled that whole time. I think people don't really understand that enough and it needs to be talked about more.

I think that to talk about Hurricane Katrina, you have to talk about the systemic racism, resource allocation, and how the value of Black life was shown very much during that time. Go back to 2005 where it's all of these Black bodies that's just neglected, with no government help. Nobody's coming to help us until three and five days after we've been out there. Soledad O'Brien went out there a week after the storm, and there are still dead bodies on the street. That wouldn't happen anywhere else. I am only left to assume it's because the value of Black life didn't matter or doesn't matter.

Even us being called refugees, we are clearly American. We are clearly from this country. I don't think that we were refugees, I think that we can add context to that, though. You all were treating us as refugees, even lower, to be honest. You all were treating us as if we were not from here.  And that's not to say that people who are not from here should be treated that way, but I think that that's the way that they all positioned it. 

It was just very clear to me where America's priorities are, and they were not with Black life. Even to this day, as this film is beginning to roll out, I've been reading articles or reviews where the term refugee is being used. 

People still don't get it.

People still don't get it. And by definition, we are not refugees. By definition, we are not refugees. That's just something to me, I'm just like, "Yo, that's crazy lazy." Right? Look it up. Choose a better term. You're a journalist. You're a reporter. And that's why I respect Soledad O'Brien so much and what she did in changing the language because she was the one, and her team was the one, that combated that when it first started to come out, like, "Yo, these are not refugees." 

The Black experience in America for a lot of us is one of a refugee. I think so many people are going to learn from the film. Can you just tell them when it comes out and where they can see it, and how they can see it?

It'll be on HBO Max. We're going to be in theaters in LA, as well, I think for a week or so.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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