The Black Children of Hurricane Katrina Finally Tell Their Stories

A new documentary, ‘Katrina Babies,’ spotlights the disaster’s youngest survivors

Children in trucks
Many of the children who survived Hurricane Katrina are still healing from the trauma of their experiences. Courtesy of HBO

Cierra Chenier was just 9 years old when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and forced her family to evacuate. After months of living in hotels in various cities, Chenier was eager to get back to New Orleans as soon as residents were allowed to re-enter the city.

But the destructive storm had filled her family’s home with six feet of water. Not only had Katrina ravaged everything her family had worked so hard for; it also stole Chenier’s childhood.

“[A]ll innocence was lost after realizing that there wasn’t a house to return back to,” Chenier writes in Essence.

Flooding in New Orleans
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina Courtesy of HBO

Chenier is just one of the many Black children who lived through Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath. But until filmmaker Edward Buckles Jr.—himself a child survivor of the 2005 tropical cyclone that remains the costliest in United States’ history—began asking questions for his multi-year project, many had never spoken publicly about their experiences.

Now, Buckles is letting the now-grown-up infants, toddlers, tweens and teenagers who lived through Katrina tell their own stories in the new documentary Katrina Babies.

“After losing so much, why wouldn’t anyone ask if we were okay?” Buckles says in the trailer. “Nobody ever asked the children how they were doing—so I am.”

Unlike traditional documentaries, Katrina Babies contains no interviews with experts or commentators. That was an intentional choice by Buckles, who wanted to let the childhood survivors speak for themselves and dictate their own narratives. As MSNBC’s Jarvis DeBerry writes in an opinion column, this uncommon stylistic choice makes the Katrina survivors “the authorities of their own lives.”

“Black children are talked about often but rarely listened to,” DeBerry writes. “They are frequently discussed, pitied or pathologized, but almost never asked to speak. They are commonly the subjects of stories, but less often those stories’ narrators.”

Filmmaker with photo
Filmmaker Edward Buckles Jr. holds up a photo of his family Courtesy of HBO

Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana and other parts of the southeastern United States near the end of August 2005. In New Orleans, some 1.2 million people evacuated before the storm hit, but tens of thousands of residents remained. Federally constructed levees and floodwalls failed, flooding 80 percent of the city and causing widespread power outages. Some parts of New Orleans, including the Lower Ninth Ward, were almost totally submerged, which meant thousands of people were stranded on rooftops or trapped in attics for several days.

Federal disaster officials were slow to respond. In the end, an estimated 1,800 people died as a result of the disaster. Recovery efforts were slow and uneven, particularly in the city’s predominantly Black neighborhoods.

In Katrina Babies, Buckles argues that New Orleans still hasn’t fully recovered. And, perhaps more importantly, neither have the children who lived through the disaster and haven’t had many opportunities to process their trauma.

“Miesha is one of my best friends, and she is a subject in the film,” Buckles tells NPR’s “All Things Considered.” “She is the first person that breaks down in this film and says, ‘No one ever asks me about my story.’ And I realized that we weren’t just dealing with people telling their stories. We were dealing with people healing.”

The film won’t heal everyone, Buckles adds, but he hopes it’s a start.