I know what it means to miss New Orleans

On 30 August 2005, my whole life changed, thanks to a hurricane named Katrina. I was on assignment in the Bahamas on 23 August when a tropical depression rolled in. The week spelled itself out in slow motion as I saw the tropical depression leave the Bahamas, become a tropical storm, and then become a Category 5 hurricane, with winds up to 175 miles an hour. That hurricane was headed right for my home.

By the time the storm subsided, 80% of New Orleans was under water. Millions of people were displaced, stuck in such unfamiliar places as Iowa and Maine. 1,836 people were not so lucky.

When I was allowed to come into the city, I didn’t find my home. I found a stinking, soggy mess, covered in mold and mud. As a young man who spent most of my time travelling, I was lucky. I didn’t have familyheirlooms dating back centuries. I didn’t have pets. I coped by cleaning up as best I could, and heading back out on the road.

I kept up with the news of the Gulf’s recovery. Six months later, people who had evacuated to the Midwest and the East Coast saw their first snow storms. They didn’t stay there because they loved Cincinnati chili; they stayed because they couldn’t go home.

A year later, 70,000 people in the region were living in one-bedroom travel trailers, being slowly poisoned by formaldehyde-cured panelling. A 6’4’’ friend of mine couldn’t stand upright in the tiny shower for the two years it took to rebuild his house.

Thanks in part to the global response, and no thanks to FEMA, New Orleans continues to rebuild. Many people are still displaced. Nearly 500,000 strong in 2005, the city now has barely 350,000 residents. Some didn’t return because their homes and neighborhoods washed away. Others took the opportunities offered to displaced people, finishing school and getting job training.

After spending so much time focussing on my work abroad, I realized that most of it has shifted from the US to Africa and the Middle East. I started Tangiers International and made Malta my base of operations.

New Orleans will always be a special place for me, but without Hurricane Katrina, I would not be the man I am today.