How much does childhood trauma affect a person’s life? What about the life of an entire city? These are among the questions Edward Buckles Jr. leaves viewers to grapple with in his new documentary, “Katrina Babies,” which premiered on HBO on Aug. 24 to mark the 17th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Mr. Buckles was 13 when his family evacuated to Lafayette, La., before that storm struck New Orleans and the levees broke. I was 5, and I fled with my family to Dallas. If you were to look at us Katrina babies, you might conclude we’ve done pretty well for ourselves: Mr. Buckles, a graduate of Dillard University, is racking up awards for his first film. I was the salutatorian of my high school class and recently graduated from the University of Notre Dame.
But before praising our resilience, consider what Mr. Buckles says in the documentary: “It’s for me to say when I’m resilient.” And I agree. To be honest, although my peers are some of the toughest, most talented people I know, we are also far from OK.
After the storm, “Katrina babies” was an expression I’d hear teachers use, often with a sad shake of the head, when kids would misbehave or a fight would break out at school. Now I hear it when the city’s gun violence claims the life of yet another person I grew up with. But I don’t think I fully realized how traumatized my generation is, or how little processing we have done, until I watched Mr. Buckles interview Carolyn Waiters Carter, the director of a local nonprofit that works with students who have been expelled from school. Ms. Waiters Carter explains that such behavioral problems are inevitable when children don’t feel safe and their baseline “is that trauma, is that fight-or-flight mode.”
Behind the camera, we hear Mr. Buckles have a breakthrough as he absorbs this seemingly simple idea. “I feel like that,” he says. “That’s, like, I can’t ever really put it into words, but that’s exactly how I feel.”
Watching at home, I paused the film and replayed it. Her words, to me too, felt like a revelation: “To feel safe is fundamental.” For 17 years we have not felt safe.
It wasn’t always like this. “Katrina Babies” begins with Mr. Buckles describing New Orleans before the hurricane changed everything: how he and his cousins gathered at his Aunt Tina’s house in the 7th Ward. In beautiful animations, Mr. Buckles illustrates his memories of playing outside with his cousins until the streetlights came on.
Even if there wasn’t a lot of money to go around, Mr. Buckles says, “I think that one thing that we had to our advantage is family and the warmth of a home. Our houses are very cozy. Our hospitality is very good. The houses smell like good food.”
When Mr. Buckles and his family returned to the city after the storm, his own house was still standing. But “the New Orleans that we knew was gone,” he says. “Boy, what a thing to lose.”
New Orleans never really rebuilt — it gentrified. We, the Black community of our city, are a people that has been displaced at least three times: first by slavery; again by the storm; and a third time by mostly white outsiders who love our city’s “vibe” — its generosity, its free-spiritedness, its constant celebrations. They don’t understand that vibe was constructed by generations of my ancestors, some of the first Black people to live freely in North America.
These weren’t just neighborhoods; they were communities held together by bonds that extended beyond blood, that were African in their essence and were the true wealth of our Black communities. “Before Katrina, you had no reason to leave your hood because your hood had everything in it,” says Lolly, one of the Katrina babies Buckles interviews in the documentary. Back then, when a family member died, you relied on your neighbors, who would sell supper plates of catfish and macaroni to help you bury your dead. Each neighborhood had a resident “Candy Lady,” a grandma-type figure whose house was a refuge every child could go to for a free snack and a loving word. Mom-and-Pop establishments were truly that — not those corner stores where the new owners eye you suspiciously.
Today, many of my friends call New Orleans a “crabs-in-a-bucket-ass city.” I can’t blame them. Like those crabs, they feel trapped — by the violence, by the poverty — and they dream of one day escaping. Home is synonymous with painful memories, and is a place where we sometimes feel like strangers now.
The Bywater, traditionally a Black neighborhood, is filled with white hipsters and Airbnbs now. And the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, one of our city’s greatest prides, looks more like Coachella each year.
I’ll never get over my beloved childhood home on Saint Ann Street, a yellow shotgun, being converted into a two-story house, blue now, that sold for almost half a million dollars last year. When I pass the house now, I wonder how the inside looks, though I don’t really want to see how much it has changed.
Still, I can’t help but love my city. New Orleans is my home and always will be. The 6th Ward is where I grew up with my siblings, Bre, Aaron and Des. It is the place where my grandma took care of me and now it is the place where I take care of her. It’s where I dance in the street on Second Line Sunday, following the jazz band through the streets the way we have always done, letting the music move our feet and our worries. Despite what we have endured, we Katrina babies are New Orleans’s only future. We can start to truly rebuild it by asking one another the question that Mr. Buckles does in his film: How are you doing? Are you OK?
As I dance, I have visions about the future of New Orleans. I see a day where all kids can play safely until streetlights come on, as Mr. Buckles and his cousins did, and every hood has a Candy Lady again. I see Black families taking care of one another, and I see us — the Katrina babies returned home — cradling babies of our own, who will keep the spirit of New Orleans alive.
Dauté Martin was the salutatorian of Walter L. Cohen College Prep in 2018 and graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2022.
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