‘Katrina Babies’ Review: HBO Doc Is a Devastating Study of Ongoing Trauma

‘Katrina Babies’ Review: HBO Doc Is a Devastating Study of Ongoing Trauma

When the water rushed into New Orleans, breaching the levees, residents say it sounded like an explosion. A boom, and then a bang. The noise came late in the night, hours after the city imposed a curfew for those who hadn’t evacuated. Silence followed the burst, an eerie inauguration for the incoming flood.

Nearly everyone interviewed in Edward Buckles Jr.’s deeply affecting and sad HBO documentary Katrina Babies remembers the water — the menacing way it engulfed the streets and crept up the sides of homes, forcing people to seek shelter in attics and roofs. Recalling the details of those uncertain August days, Buckles’ interviewees are calm and matter-of-fact: “It sounded like the apocalypse,” says Arnold Burks, who was 13 years-old at the time. Outside his window, debris, animals and traffic signs flew by, and the trees looked “like they were about to come out of the ground.” Miesha Williams, who was 12, remembers the cold rush of air brushing her face, the sound of the levees failing, the height of the water.

Katrina Babies

The Bottom Line

An emotionally charged reminder of an ongoing nightmare.

Release date: 9 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24 (HBO)
Director: Edward Buckles, Jr.
Screenwriters: Edward Buckles, Jr., Luther Clement-Lam, Audrey Rosenberg

1 hour 19 minutes

But the faces of these young adults (all of whom were kids during the hurricane) counter the ease of their storytelling. They fix their eyes away from the camera, as if entranced by their own memories. Their voices quiver when they stumble over minute moments whose significance has ballooned: the bewildered look on a pastor’s face when one family told him they would ride out the storm, a snap decision to pack photos of friends. Few of the doc’s participants have ever been asked about the storm, how it made them feel, how, after all these years, they carry its ghosts.  

Katrina Babies is an assertion of presence, a proclamation that the devastating hurricane is not simply a past story, but a present one too. Buckles, who wrote and directed the documentary, combines home videos, oral histories culled from his friends and family, official newsreels and audio clips to disrupt the comfortable lore around New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. He nudges the youngest people affected to the center, offering them a chance to dust off memories relegated to the recesses of their mind. Who are you in the wake of this avoidable tragedy? Who were you before it? What feelings linger? In gently posing these questions, Buckles has created a cathartic document and intimate appraisal of an ongoing nightmare.

Life before the storm feels distant, but Buckles, whose testimony and family videos set Katrina Babies in motion, holds memories of playing with his cousin close to his heart. He recounts the last time they hung out in vivid detail. They gathered at Cousin Tina’s house for a back-to-school celebration and filled their evening with jokes, laughter, games and bowlfuls of gravy and rice. These, and other stories of life before the hurricane, are illustrated by Antoni Sendra’s bouncing animations, stylistically rendered like the works of artists Romare Bearden and Mickalene Thomas. They tell us what images and videos can’t, commemorating what risks being lost.

The first time we see Buckles, he is fiddling with objects in a room: arranging and rearranging a blanket strewn on the couch, a photo hanging on the wall. Solemnity sets in when he starts talking about the storm, his cheery disposition dampened by the reality of its destruction. All of the interviews in Katrina Babies have this same undulating rhythm: eagerness followed by tense sobriety. The subject’s difficulty leaves participants with a mess of discomfiting feelings — vulnerability, anger, confusion. “I don’t want to cry,” Miesha says at one point. Others, like Cierra Chenier, who was 9 at the time of the storm, find themselves airing never-before-articulated emotions. These moments testify to Buckles’ proximity to those featured. (It doesn’t feel appropriate to call them subjects, a distancing term: They are family, friends, members of a physical community.)

And their narratives are haunted by death, destruction and displacement. They speak of escaping the storm, being airlifted from their rooftops, coming upon the Morial Convention Center and other makeshift shelters. They describe the stench of sweat and feces permeating the thick air, and dead bodies in the streets. They wondered if they were going to die too. These stories are the heart of Katrina Babies, but Buckles and his editors Luther Clement-Lam and Fiona Otway weave them into sequences of news reports from that year. It’s always disturbing to confront the way mainstream media outlets described Black New Orleanians — “looters” and “criminals” were a few of their favorite terms — but to hear them alongside children’s testimonies adds a shameful layer.

Arianna Evans is one child whose experience Buckles revisits. When she was 9 years-old, a news anchor asked her about life in the Superdome and she forthrightly spoke of the horrid conditions: Her grandmother was running out of insulin and officials kept making promises they didn’t keep. “We just need some help out here,” she said. “It is just pitiful.” She became an avatar for New Orleans’ children. A decade later (Buckles filmed most of these interviews in 2015), she reflects on how frightened she felt at the prospect of her grandmother dying.

A peculiar American type of callousness reveals itself over the course of Katrina Babies. As the worst of the storm passed, new problems replaced the fear of imminent danger. Thousands of people died during Katrina and hundreds of thousands were displaced from the Gulf Coast region, spreading out across parts of the American South. The post-hurricane ecosystem was overwhelming, hostile and disheartening. Buckles and his peers talk about periodically changing schools, feeling isolated in their new cities and towns, developing health issues from staying in FEMA-provided housing.

Katrina Babies might be most comparable to Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke (2006) in subject matter, but its narrower scope and preoccupation with the personal aligns it with experimental documentaries like Jon-Sesrie Goff’s captivating After Sherman, as well as stirring literary studies of the hurricane like Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones and Sarah Broome’s memoir The Yellow House.

While they tried to adjust, the youngest New Orleanians watched their city come back to life without them. The focus on rebuilding the French Quarter and shoring up a labor force to staff tourist attractions meant that thousands of poor and Black residents were left without relief. Katrina also sped up gentrification in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Those who could return to their homes encountered a ghost town and painful memories. They watched New Orleans and Katrina become symbols and talking points, witnessed their own disappearance from the national narrative.

Katrina Babies accounts for the lost stories, the forgotten anecdotes and the conveniently ignored connecting threads. The final third of the documentary focuses on Buckles’ return to New Orleans, his challenging adolescent years, his loss of friends. After graduating from college, he takes a job teaching multimedia studies at a local high school. There, he witnesses how the trauma of the storm extends into the next generation. His students will never know his New Orleans; they are struggling to find their place in a city that sees them as problems to be managed. The film adopts a more protective tone — and in its final moments doubles as an extended hand, an invitation, from the kids of the Big Easy’s past to those of its present, to share.