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‘Katrina Babies’ is a reminder of what was lost and what it means to survive

Edward Buckles Jr.’s new HBO documentary takes a look at the hurricane that reshaped New Orleans

The legacy of Hurricane Katrina is one of America’s most shameful moments. But while a lot has been said of the pitiful rescue efforts, the dismal relief plan, and the abandonment of an entire region that allowed the storm to ravage New Orleans and the surrounding areas, not enough has been made of the damage the hurricane did to the people who survived it.

That’s where Katrina Babies comes in. Directed by New Orleans native Edward Buckles Jr., who was a teenager when Katrina struck, the documentary, which premieres Thursday on HBO, reminds us of the storm’s real-life ramifications.

Buckles’ intimate connection to the people he interviews — many of them family members, friends, and former students from his time teaching in New Orleans — and his own recollections of the storm offer a closeness to the terror that is jarring to watch. Katrina killed 1,833 people, a million folks were displaced, the city had billions of dollars in property and infrastructure damage, and residents suffered unquantifiable emotional trauma.

I found myself needing to step away from the documentary multiple times, such as when archived 911 calls reveal fearful residents trapped in their basements, or those who were children at the time reflecting on being trapped in the overcrowded Louisiana Superdome. I was taken back to the fear, anxiety, and despair I felt watching the storm build while I was hundreds of miles away.

In 2005, I was a sophomore at Davidson College in North Carolina when I saw the news about the hurricane heading toward New Orleans. As someone born in Louisiana and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, I’d heard about “the big one” my whole life — the mother of all hurricanes that would put the city underwater. I spent the days leading up to Katrina calling friends and family to make sure they had evacuated. I’ll never forget being on the phone with my mom, who was in Jackson, a couple of hours north of New Orleans and in the path of the storm. As she was assuring me that my siblings and nieces and nephews gathered in her house would be safe, the cellphone signal faded as the storm approached. The subsequent hours of silence felt like days.

Katrina Babies captures that fear from the people who were on the ground. Some recall the water rising to their necks or the panic that emerged from the Superdome. Others recount the terror in the eyes of 9-year-old Arianna Evans, who became the face of the storm’s aftermath when she begged for help getting insulin for her grandmother. For most of the country, children like Arianna were forgotten. In the documentary, Buckles reminds us they had full lives to lead after the news cameras stopped rolling.

Before Katrina hit, my dad had been doing education work in New Orleans, and I’d go to the city with him on my breaks. A few months after the storm, we returned and I distinctly remember the smell of rot in the air and how it coated my throat. He’d take me to schools trying to rebuild and we’d hear stories of kids too scared of water to take showers or who panicked at the slightest drizzle. I met kids who watched their parents die and others who had been separated from their families.

A year or so later, I spent the summer working for a company that helped put on a tennis camp for young people who were living in what had been dubbed Katrina trailer parks — abandoned store parking lots with mobile homes for displaced families. The kids I played tennis with told me how they would just go from school to their trailers, not seeing a yard for months. Some of them talked about their parents leaving one day and never coming back. One child was so depressed that he’d go straight to bed after school and stare at the TV until he got up the next morning. I’ve never stopped thinking about those kids. So it was particularly heartbreaking to see Katrina Babies talk about how the trailers contained toxic levels of formaldehyde.

Watching Katrina Babies brought about post-traumatic stress disorder from an event I didn’t directly live through. I don’t know what it’s like to be stranded on a roof watching water wipe out my home. I don’t know what it’s like to wonder if help is going to come before my children drown. I don’t know the calculus it takes to decide if grabbing a loaf of bread from the store to feed my family is worth possibly being shot by police. But that doesn’t stop me from experiencing cold sweats when these stories are told. To hear them is to remember what it means to be Black in America.

Katrina Babies is the story of disposability, systemic cruelty and, yet, a story of deep, unflinching perseverance. Buckles does not leave us in our grief. The final act is a celebration of every person who made it to the other side of this horrific event. Those who rose above a tide that threatened to pull them under. A montage near the end of the doc shows graduations, family reunions – and healing, a reminder of the power of New Orleans and the Black folks in the Crescent City. At the same time, Katrina Babies is a plea to not let anything like this happen again. Because these disasters aren’t confined to the moments when the rain hits the pavement.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.