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Opinion: Katrina Babies and the trauma of natural disaster

On Aug. 24, Edward Buckles Jr.’s cinéma vérité-style Katrina Babies premiered on HBO after opening to rave reviews at Tribeca Festival. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, the film has a special relevance for Central Floridians as massive flooding and power outages wreaked havoc throughout Metro Orlando. 

The documentary provides a first-person account of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, a storm that triggered the largest forced displacement of Black people since the United States’ founding. 

“After losing so much,” the film’s narration begins, “why wouldn’t anybody ask if we were okay? Nobody ever asked the children how they were doing.”

In each of Buckles’ intimate interviews with millennial-aged survivors, a sense of lingering, citywide disconcert is palpable. With striking clarity, he shows how those who spent their formative years in Katrina’s wake were left emotionally hardened. While the brick-and-mortar communities of New Orleans slowly rebuilt, PTSD, depression, interpersonal violence, and other symptoms of trauma ran rampant within the 17 wards. As Buckles notes, it is rarely talked about.

“I don’t know [why.] Nobody really…nobody was really there to ask me,” answers one woman to the camera—a devastating confirmation of the film’s thesis. 

In an interview with The Gambit, Buckles states that many of the people he interviewed still have nightmares, or “can’t sit through a rainstorm without having anxiety… A lot of people in my age range were able to draw direct lines to Katrina.”

For that reason, the lasting psychological effects of natural disasters cannot be understated. Buckles laments that the titular “Katrina Babies” of Generation Z, or those who were too young to remember the storm, are “taking the torch, if you will, on a lot of the trauma we pass to them…It’s a more mature impact because it’s been around and structured into our community and our lives in a way that’s more settled.”

One cannot help but draw connections between Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ian. It has been one month since Hurricane Ian, and many residents are still reeling from the flooding and destruction that occurred in the early hours of Sept. 29. 

Ian’s fatality count has soared to over 120, making it Florida’s deadliest storm since 1935. The hurricane is tied with 8 other storms as the 5th costliest in United States history, but its catastrophic effects on Orange, Seminole, and Osceola counties have been major. Governor Ron DeSantis stated during a press conference that “the amount of water that has been rising in [these areas]…is basically a 500-year flood event.”

Alongside the confessional-style segments in Katrina Babies, Buckles also juxtaposes home videos with archived news footage to contrast the perspectives of Black refugees with the average American voyeur. An initial review from Deadline suggests that this “captures the spirit and resilience of New Orleans,” although the use of the word “resilient” is something the filmmaker challenges through his careful mise-en-scène

“I feel like ‘resilience’ is used as a tool,” Buckles’ narration continues, “because they want people to think, ‘oh no, everything is okay, these people are strong, look how much they’ve overcome’… It’s for me to say what is resilient. Not for you.”

While most students were stuck indoors during the college’s switch to virtual learning, it was hard not to notice the barrage of news footage showing residents displaced by the storm. Southeast and West Orange county, including the low-income neighborhoods around Colonial Drive, South Semoran, and Orlo Vista, endured some of the worst damage

As we all reflect on our own hurricane experience weeks later, films like Katrina Babies provoke one glaring question: why do these areas always seem to suffer the most? 

“It’s important that we start these conversations, and teach the children,” Buckles urges. “There’s still justice that needs to be done.”

Katrina Babies is “certified fresh” at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and is available to stream on HBO Max. 
Rollins students affected by Hurricane Ian are encouraged to reach out to Student and Family Care, The Wellness Center, Religious & Spiritual Life, and The Tutoring & Writing Center with their respective issues.

The opinions on this page do not necessarily reflect those of The Sandspur or Rollins College.

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