WATCH: A Katrina Survival Story Told Over 10 Years

By Tara Conley Aug 25, 2015

I first began documenting the events of Hurricane Katrina one week after it struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. I was living in Houston, a city where anywhere between 40,000 to 250,000 New Orleanians relocated after the storm. My home was about 10 minutes from the Reliant Center, the stadium and surrounding area that people began calling "Reliant City" because it served as a self-contained base camp for NOLA survivors who were bussed into Houston. 

At the Reliant Center, while volunteering for the Red Cross, I talked with survivors over the course of several days, mostly on camera, about how they made it through one of the worst natural—and then manmade—disasters in U.S. history. I began filming Kellen Smith, who was 23 when Katrina hit, after meeting him through a mutual friend in September 2006. He’d relocated to Houston to find work and produce music. 

Kellen and I first sat down for about an hour in a dimly lit music studio on the southside of Houston. Our friend, also a producer, sat behind the camera as Kellen walked me through his Katrina experience. I didn’t have to press too hard to get details. He was already a good storyteller. 

Kellen described in perfect detail the thick mud that stuck to the floors and walls of his parents’ house, which Katrina destroyed. “The refrigerator,” he told me, “was black, but not from dirt; that’s how many bugs was in there.” We discussed Betsy, too—arguably the most devastating hurricane prior to Katrina that swallowed New Orleans in 1965. Kellen, like the black New Orleanians I spoke with at the Reliant Center, talked about the eerie connection between Betsy and Katrina. There was nothing natural about these hurricanes, they told me. Some believed that there had been an outside explosion of New Orleans’ levees meant to save the French Quarter and redirect flood waters to poorer and blacker neighborhoods.

I’ve interviewed Kellen several times over the past nine years; the last time was early this month. The resulting short film, "Kellen and Katrina," features video from our meetings and 2005 footage from Kellen’s own collection. 

"Kellen and Katrina" is one black New Orleanian’s journey from a 23-year-old with big plans to become a professional bowler and music producer to a 33-year-old telecommunications technician, fiancée and father to a 9-year-old stepdaughter and newborn son. But it is also a celebration of all those who weathered the storm, confronted its aftermath, and lived on with hopes for a better future. Watch the short film above. 
Tara L. Conley serves as the social media manager at Race Forward, the racial justice organization that publishes Colorlines. She is also a doctoral candidate at Columbia University’s Teachers College where she is completing her dissertation, an ethnography about mobilities and young adults in the city. To watch the full-length version of "Kellen and Katrina," called "Brackish: A Visual Ethnography of Hurricane Katrina," visit