Edward Buckles Jr. on Katrina Babies and Childhood Trauma

Edward Buckles Jr. had just turned 12 years old when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. The storm caused him to change his life forever. His entire family left New Orleans just in time. After years spent as an educator and filmmaker, Buckles decided to make a film about the children—including himself—who were affected by the storm. Katrina BabiesTIME Studios’ intimate documentary is about loss and life. The film focuses on people aged between 3 and 19 when the storm hit. Through moving firsthand accounts, including interviews with his cousins and parents, Buckles wants his film to “change the narrative and own the narrative of what’s happening with young New Orleans.”

In a conversation with journalist Soledad O’Brien, who covered the aftermath of Katrina extensively for CNN, Buckles discussed his film and his hope for the future.

O’Brien and Buckles’ conversation is paired with a new TIME cover, featuring art by Charly Palmer. This is the title of the piece Black Boy FlyIt celebrates and recognizes the potential for young people to overcome tragedy and other difficulties. He says his inspiration is the Black child’s right to their own, untroubled childhood, even in the face of challenges. Palmer is the author and illustrator of the 2022 children’s book, The Legend of Gravity and is the co-author with his wife, Dr. Karida L. Brown, of the forthcoming children’s anthology, The Brownies book: A love letter to black families In 2020, a Palmer painting called “In Her Eyes” graced the cover of TIME.

Katrina BabiesPremieres on HBO Max, August 24, at 9:59 p.m.

Soledad O’Brien: Was there a story you were looking to share?

Buckles: When I was 20, I had this idea while studying documentary at Dillard. [University]. I’m watching all of these films, and I’m really being inspired. And then I’m like, What’s a documentary that I would tell about my life? I was very disappointed. One day my cousin Tina called me. She was crying because she had been displaced by the holidays. That’s when it finally hit me. It hit me. I thought, “Yo, I’d like to tell you a story about the kids who were affected by the storm.” She told me about all my cousins’ experiences during that phone call. I grew up in post-­Katrina New Orleans, and I was ­exposed to everything.

You felt like you couldn’t understand the story because you were there.

The weight gain and all the associated stories were not what I expected. So that’s why it took me seven years to make it. But it wasn’t until Year 6 that I actually inserted myself into the film. My resistance was strong.

What made you resist? It really is your story seen through other people’s experiences as well.

I was resistant because the only thing that I can think about is survivor’s guilt. I was fortunate enough to follow my mom’s faith, and she evacuated us at the 11th hour. Something that we do a lot in our communities—I don’t just want to say in New Orleans, but something that we do in my type of neighborhoods—is we compare trauma. We wear our trauma as armor. So, because I wasn’t actually in the water, I always said, “I don’t have trauma.” There are people being airlifted off of roofs and people who drowned and people who lost their parents, why do you need to be in this story? My trauma surfaced in many different ways as I grew up. It just wasn’t the same as everybody else’s, but trauma is trauma. I was able to start the process of healing and finding my trauma.

Katrina Babies director Edward Buckles, Jr.

Courtesy HBO

Did it make it difficult to go back to the videos and view them? After spending so much time covering the story in New Orleans, it was difficult for me to see.

Although it was difficult to see the archival footage in its entirety, I did learn a lot. It was amazing to hear the crazy things that different journalists and reporters were saying. I gained a new respect for journalists and reporters who do it right, with empathy and love, and who really try to help the voiceless. However, it allowed me to also see the negative side and what was being said about our Black bodies.

What is it like to lose your future when you’re 12 years old?

How does losing your identity relate to all that was washed away? Our neighborhoods are a way to discover who we really are in New Orleans. Through our past, we discover who and what makes us unique. When I became a high school teacher, it was the most interesting thing because every high schooler is on their ­journey. But kids in New Orleans really don’t know who they are, don’t know how to find who they are because they’re moving around so much, because they don’t have any baby pictures, simple things like that. They don’t know where their childhood home is. If you layer that on top of everything else that’s happening in New Orleans, it’s hard to grow up. Children who were not affected by the hurricane 17 years ago still feel the effects of what happened. It’s still impacting their future because of the conditions that it left.

Is it not annoying that people call the folks who have been displaced refugees instead of evacuees?

I find it mad, because refugees are defined as people who do not seek refuge. It was like we were refugees being treated, but, in reality, we’re Americans. Right? It is here that we fight and would give our lives for this country. Calling us refugees seemed lazy, I think. And don’t be lazy with how you are labeling us because words are things, right? So I just think that it’s the lack of empathy, and it’s the lack of respect for Black people and Black bodies. It’s like one of those things where I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.

An evacuation scene during Hurricane Katrina, 2005.

Courtesy HBO

Why do you think so many people who are very young babies in Katrina haven’t gotten help for what is clearly a real trauma?

Growing up disenfranchised and not having access and mental-­health resources. I think that’s the reason that talking about our trauma is not our go-to, but using our strength and resilience is.

How do you wish people to take away this film?

It was 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit, and the echoes of it are still strong. If we have the resources and the tools to make our city great, I think we can. It was my intention to bring light to us all and help with healing.

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