By Robert McDaniel

Five years ago, I was a young U.S. Marine stationed in New Orleans, La. As a Marine, I was trained to respond to any situation with speed, intensity and a level head; but when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, I had no idea how to respond. Generally, any New Orleans resident can tell you that hurricane evacuations happen just about every week during the summer, so by late August 2005, we all left the city of New Orleans thinking this was another false alarm and that we would be back in a day or two.The days that followed the mandatory evacuation order were, to say the least, traumatic. New Orleans citizens had spread all over the country and were now watching their homes and their city being destroyed on national television. A feeling of helplessness sunk in as every news channel across the nation broadcast the disaster with 24/7 coverage. From Aug. 27 until Dec. 1, I sat in a trashy hotel in Kansas City, Mo., waiting for the order to return home to witness the disaster up close.

When I finally made it back to New Orleans in December, my heart sank. It had been three months since the hurricane had devastated the Gulf Coast, and it seemed like no progress had been made in the recovery. Streets were still flooded, bridges were destroyed and there wasn’t an open grocery store or gas station for miles.

For anyone who saw news coverage or pictures of the Gulf Coast after Katrina, I can say that pictures do not paint an accurate picture of the destruction brought by a simple act of nature. The “Big Easy” had been devastated, plain and simple.

I returned to my apartment, which was on the Navy base, right next to the Mississippi River. Words really can’t express how depressing it was to walk back into the home where I had spent most of my adult life. The walls were covered in mold from the floor to about chest-level. The Marine Corps had done nothing to try to fix my home, stating that the more severely damaged areas took priority over “livable” residences.

Like most New Orleans citizens at the time, I decided to make the best of what was in front of me. Yes, my home was in sad shape, but at least it had four walls and a roof overhead. I thought maybe things weren’t as bad as they seemed. So I had some mold on my walls; at least I hadn’t lost anyone in the disaster. All my possessions could be replaced. So many people had died or had no home to come back to, so I took the optimistic approach and moved on with life.

Things really started to come together in the months following my return. Eventually my apartment was repaired, stores began to reopen and New Orleans slowly came back to life. Yes, the optimistic approach was working . . .

In late April 2006, eight months after Hurricane Katrina, I found that that a city in ruins wasn’t the only result of the storm. That month, I discovered that the black mold, probably from the apartment I had been living in, had caused an infection in my heart. I was given a choice: emergency open-heart surgery or a mere six months to live. The choice would be simple for anyone placed in my situation. I accepted a medical retirement from the Marine Corps and had the surgery.

This week marks five years since a hurricane made its impact on the Gulf Coast and changed my life and the lives of many others forever. Some people will spend this week celebrating the recovery of New Orleans. Some will spend it mourning lost family members or friends. I choose to spend this week reflecting on how a storm and a little mold made me a stronger person.