Melissa Harris-Perry: You're back with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. 17 years ago today, Hurricane Katrina may landfall along the Gulf Coast. In the final hours before impact, the storm slowed just a little, it turned just a bit. It seemed like maybe, just maybe, Katrina would be like so many other storms that had threatened New Orleans, but then proved to be a little more than a short-term inconvenience.
The kind of thing you tell your grandbabies years later, the kind of thing that you remember with your cousins, but the levees failed. The industrial canal breached with such force that houses were moved off their foundations in an instant and homes in the lower Ninth Ward were submerged within hours.
Speaker 2: I was 11 years old. The first thing I can remember, I was knocked out asleep, man. The first thing I can remember was just feet running down the hallway, duh, duh, duh. My mom was like, "Get up, get up, get up, we got to go, we got to go, we got to go."
Speaker 3: Something like that it's really hard for you to forget.
Speaker 4: Friday I was at school walking the hallways with my friends. By Monday, I was on top of [beep] roof.
Speaker 5: My mom's home crying, my grandmother's home crying, our house is destroyed. It's just too much. Even though I'm young and it's not like I'm stressing how my parents were stressing but I just wasn't comfortable. I couldn't think properly.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Writer, producer, and director Edward Buckles Jr was 13 years old when the levees failed, drowning the community he'd known, scattering the family he loved, and altering the trajectory of his life. This is where he begins the story of his new documentary film, Katrina Babies, which seeks to understand how Katrina affected those between the ages of 3 and 19 when the levees failed. Edward Buckles Jr, welcome to The Takeaway.
Edward Buckles Jr: Thank you for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: So many of the young people that you talk to in the film said that no one ever asked them about their experience. I think you give us a little bit of a glimpse into maybe why adults were missing the need to ask that question, but why do you think so many failed to just ask?
Edward Buckles Jr: I think that often when it comes to disasters and tragedies and traumas, kids are often the afterthought. I think that when it came to hurricane Katrina, if you look at the archival footage and if you see the slow response to just help during the storm, I don't think that it's surprising that there was not much support and assistance once the storm wasn't here. I can only assume it's the lack of care and empathy for us, but I don't know the actual reason.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I pretty much barely could watch [chuckles] the documentary. I think for me, what was hardest were the photos, the pictures. Can you talk with me about, as we say, what Katrina took and how you were able to recover the few photos that we're able to see that you used throughout the film?
Edward Buckles Jr: Yes, absolutely. It's interesting because I've done a lot of press so far and this is the first question I've ever been asked about the photos. That's one of my favorite pieces about the film because photos are so sacred to us. A lot of people in New Orleans lost all of their photos. I have friends, I have people who I interviewed in this project who literally don't know what they look like as babies or they don't know what they looked like prior to Hurricane Katrina happening. I just knew that there were a few people that did salvage some photos and I just wanted to treat them in a sacred way.
During the process of making this film, my mother actually, she pulled out this bag of just these duplicates of photos that we thought didn't exist anymore. My cousin, Tina, she basically lost all of her photos. Because my mom had this bag of photos that she was able to I guess store and then also I guess save from my grandmother's house who was also underwater, I was able to take those photos and scan and preserve them, but also get them to some of my family members who did lose everything such as Tina. Those photos are very, very special.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also the set. You recreate your cousin Tina's house, the wood paneling, that shag rug, you use those photos, but then at the end, you show us that it's just a set. It's the final images that we see.
Edward Buckles Jr: Yes. It was just a representation of this whole idea of home and this whole idea of seeming like we are rebuilt, seeming like we are comfortable, seeming like we are good, also tying in that double-edged sword of resilience where it's this whole film it seems like I'm good, and it's like, "At least he still has his house, at least he was rebuilt." Then at the end, it's like, "No, those things could never be rebuilt. Those things could never come back."
Even if the city does come back 10 times over when it comes to economics and tourism and everything like that, the things that matter to us and things that made us feel comfortable and us feel safe, those things are not back. I guess it was symbolic for how many of us are feeling that way in New Orleans.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One of the young people that you talked to talks about coming back and seeing all [chuckles] the demonstration houses, the Brad Pitt Make It Right houses, and the solar panels. It leads into a conversation about gentrification, but it's also like, "What is this neighborhood?" Can you talk to me about how people now so frequently do talk about New Orleans being rebuilt, being better, being all fine, and what your message is here relative to that?
Edward Buckles Jr: I think that if you're not from New Orleans and if you are a transplant and if you have moved here from somewhere else, you might love the city and you might feel at home, you might feel like the $400,000, $500,000 house that you live in is beautiful and it's for you, and the neighborhoods are just super cultural and it's so cool to live in this place. If you're from here and if you are a native of New Orleans, you feel like you're displaced within the city. Not all of us but a lot of us are being moved around so much because of the fact that these houses are so expensive now, the rent is so high, property value is going up.
I think that that's the main thing that's happening with natives is that we are being displaced within our own city after so many people were already displaced from Hurricane Katrina. We still love our city and as long as Black people are in New Orleans, I think that it's going to be ours, but I do see a sense of uncomfort and frustration with the priorities when it comes to the people that built this city and when it comes to the people that made this city everything that it is when it comes to tourism.
If you want to talk about tourism being a billion-dollar industry in New Orleans, I know that it's because of us. It's a little bit frustrating and it's a bit of a slap in the face when it comes to how we are being treated and what we are being left. I think that that's the main narrative right now in New Orleans is us trying to fight for what's ours and us trying to rebuild the city in a way that we see it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Toward the end of the film, you tell us Katrina is becoming a folk tale. It's a little good and a little bad that idea of being a folk tale. What do you mean by that?
Edward Buckles Jr: That was Arnold Burks, one of my good friends, AB. When he said that and the reason that we chose to use that is because, yes, there's pros and cons to that. Yes, we want the story told but as we know, sometimes in folk tales around that campfire, certain storytellers might add in something. Add in stuff that isn't all the way the truth. I think that part of the reason that I made this film was because of the folk tales [chuckles] that I kept hearing about Hurricane Katrina.
Every year since I was a kid, I would hear these stories about how New Orleans is back, New Orleans is rebuilt, New Orleans people are good. They're so resilient. Look at them, they're thriving. Hurricane Katrina is something of the past. That wasn't true. That was just one of those stories at the campfire that somebody was exaggerating because it's like, how can that be true if no one ever spoke to the kids?
How can that be true if no one ever checked on the kids and are simply just asked how are you because at the end of the day, their kids are the future of the city. Their kids are the future voters, their kids are the future creators, business owners, everything. How can that be true? I thought that line was appropriate because it's like now it's our turn to tell our stories now. It's our turn at the campfire to tell exactly how it is.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Edward Buckles Jr is a writer, producer, and director of Katrina Babies. The film is currently available to watch on HBO Max. Take care of yourself today, Edward.
Edward Buckles Jr: Okay. Thank you. You too.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks for staying with us on The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. We've been talking about the new documentary movie, Katrina Babies. It documents the experiences of children who were traumatized and displaced by the catastrophic levee failures in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the city of New Orleans 17 years ago today. Joining me now is Dr. Denese Shervington, founder and CEO of the Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies, a national nonprofit health organization based in New Orleans. Dr. Shervington, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Dr. Denese Shervington: Hello. Thank you so much and thank you for always keeping New Orleans in your heart.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Where else would it be, Dr. Shervington? I don't know if you've seen Katrina Babies yet, but at the core is this statement by the filmmaker who I just spoke with who has so many young people saying that after Katrina, no adult in their life ever asked them what they'd been through. I kept thinking about the work that you and others at IWES have been doing. I know that for nearly two decades, you have been trying to talk to kids about it. What have you learned?
Dr. Denese Shervington: I have learned that they're exactly correct. The experience of Katrina was a total failure at the government level, at the business level in terms of addressing the real human needs of young people, their families, and particularly those who were at socio-economic risk. They are very correct. No one was interested in speaking to them except some nonprofits, some good-hearted people throughout the country who came to New Orleans. The attitude towards them was that they're problems, that there was something wrong with them, rather than asking them what went wrong in their lives, what happened, and how can we help to make it right.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to listen to an insight from Edward Buckles, the filmmaker, in the film Katrina Babies.
Edward Buckles Jr: Sometimes I feel like resilience is used as a tool because they want people to think, "Oh, no, everything is okay. These people are good. They're strong. Look at how much they've overcome." It's for me to say when I'm resilient, it's for me to say what is resilient, it's not for you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How, Dr. Shervington, is this language and idea of resilience so often misused?
Dr. Denese Shervington: Absolutely. We actually did a white paper on the whole concept of resilience fatigue. How many more times are you going to ask us to get up and be strong after you keep knocking us down? What we found in our work in New Orleans and continue to find is this idea of resilience fatigue. Each person, as Mr. Buckles says, has to understand their own capacity to come back and bounce back from their pain. We offered young people in New Orleans very little tools to be able to do so.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's been 17 years, I know there are many folks and dadly who think, "Surely, some of these young people weren't even 17 when it happened. They've lived more of their life after Katrina than before it. Surely they should be over it by now." How does trauma in childhood affect young people into their adulthood?
Dr. Denese Shervington: Absolutely. This is very important for us to think about, and in particular, along developmental lines. I want to add another complication or just another group of Katrina babies are those whose mothers were pregnant during Katrina. Studies looking at the Holocaust, 911 shows that women who are pregnant during major disasters transmit the risk for later development of post-traumatic stress disorder. I actually in New Orleans had a teacher come to me and ask me would I do a group with some of-- She called them at that time her Katrina babies.
They were in third grade when I met them. It was exactly the year at the time that they were in third grade, their mother was pregnant during the disaster. We have to look at the developmental trajectory, that it impacted the brains of a five-year-old much different than a 13-year-old, than a 17-year-old. That's what's important. Even though we might begin to say, "Okay, we know these young people suffered some degree of traumatic stress," we also have to think about how it impacted their development.
Their brain wasn't fully developed. We know our brain doesn't really fully develop until we're about age 26. No one has the right to say to anyone who had this experience, or who was observing the experience with deep connections to New Orleans or lost people, we don't have the right to tell them that they should get over it. We need to give them the opportunities and the supports for them to go through their healing journey.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I keep thinking about the fact that the kids who were in preschool during Katrina are high school juniors and seniors at the start of the COVID pandemic when schools were closed and communities were quarantined. Did you talk with folks who were experiencing that second-order trauma?
Dr. Denese Shervington: Absolutely. Last year was just the bittersweet 16 for folks who just didn't have that much reserve, and all the traumatic memories, Katrina, Ida, and COVID all started to intersect. We really have to think about what does that mean for young people who have been going through these series of really acute shocks, acute traumas with an underbelly of chronic adversity for many in the city up to the point of Katrina.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you see the current violence in the city as being connected to any of this?
Dr. Denese Shervington: Absolutely. About three months ago, myself and some colleagues got together and said, "We have to stop blaming the children. What have we done for them?" We know that when we do not resolve traumas, in fact, there was a billboard I did in New Orleans right in front of the jail that said that trauma is the underbelly of violence. If we do not help people through their suffering, for some, it can turn into violence. This is what we're seeing.
What we need to do with New Orleans, again, as was said in Katrina Babies, the documentary, we need to really afford young people the opportunity to share with us in supportive ways what is happening to them and let them help us understand how best we can support them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Denese Shervington, I always so appreciate your insights and your work. Dr. Denese Shervington is founder and CEO of the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies, a national nonprofit health organization in New Orleans. Thank you for joining us today.
Dr. Denese Shervington: Thank you so much.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.