Tragedy to Triumph: One Man’s Story of How He Survived Katrina

Hurricane Katrina survivor and Louisiana native, Terry Fortia knew he was a good cook, but he never imagined his culinary skills, would someday make him one of Hollywood’s hottest chefs. Fortia has served up dishes to many celebrities including Justin Timberlake, Cameron Diaz, Ludacris, Kate Moss, Rachel Bilson, Adam Brody, Stevie Wonder, and more. As resident chef at L.A.’s Memphis restaurant, Fortia’s recipe for success began with pots, pans, and a dash of ambition.

As a child, Fortia was always interested in cooking. He would spend his time watching his grandmother and mother cook in the kitchen. But it wasn’t until Fortia’s first job as a dishwasher at the New Orleans Petroleum Club that his destiny became clearer.

A chef by the name of Carlos, sparked his interest by teaching him more about cooking. An attentive Fortia began taking mental notes, building his resume at other restaurants, while exploring the world of culinary arts.

“I call [my training] the school of hard knocks. I didn’t think about going to school to be a chef. It just so happened that I got my first job as a dishwasher, and it just automatically happened,” said Fortia.

As an adult, Fortia’s life in Louisiana was both exciting and content. He had found his niche in the kitchen, and his conditions were stable. He was even looking forward to purchasing a new home for his wife and their five children.

Hurricane Katrina

Then news came that a hurricane named Katrina was on the way.

“My wife and I were planning on evacuating with my uncle, but she didn’t want to leave her mother, so we ended up going to her mother’s house and riding the storm out [over] there in uptown New Orleans.”

Like many evacuees, his family packed lightly. According to Fortia, family packed “a few outfits, water, canned goods, batteries, flashlights…”

While Fortia was “riding the storm out,” on August 29, levees separating two lakes breached, and flooded roughly 80% of New Orleans, inciting a power outage, and submerging entire communities under water.

After Katrina: The Dream Center

After the storms and flooding subsided, Fortia and his family were living in a backroom shelter for a week, when they heard of an enticing offer.

The Dream Center, a large shelter and religious organization in Los Angeles, CA was offering families the option of relocating to their Dream Center shelter in Los Angeles. Fortia was looking forward to having “beds, rooms, and cleaner facilities,” where his family could live without separation.

While awaiting his flight in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana airport, Fortia has a chance meeting with NBC Nightly News anchor, Brian Williams. Williams introduced himself and began making casual conversation. “[Williams] didn’t approach me like, ‘Are you a Katrina victim?’ He wasn’t looking for something like that. He just started talking like if you and I were at a bus stop or something,” said Fortia.

Later that evening, William’s broadcast included his interview with Fortia.

Memphis employees watched Fortia on NBC’s Nightly News and they were interested in meeting him to discuss a possible job opportunity. Shortly after Fortia’s broadcast, they drove to the Dream Center and left contact information for Fortia.

Once Fortia saw southern dishes on the Memphis menu, he said, “This is right up my alley!”

When Fortia was ready to interview with Memphis, he got another helping hand.

Actor, Windsor Harmon, who plays “Thorne Forrester” on The Bold and the Beautiful, had already spent two weeks with Fortia at the Dream Center and offered to drive him to the restaurant. “I was stuck in disbelief,” said Fortia. Soon after, Fortia was cooking up a storm, at Memphis.

“I’m blessed to work here,” he said. “I have my own job and everything, but you wonder what it would be like if the storm didn’t hit. Everybody’s trying to get their life back on track,” said Fortia.

Although the cost of property in Los Angeles is discouraging, as a father, Fortia is pleased that his children are receiving a better education.

“One of the things I like about L.A. is the school system [is] much better. The worst school here is probably better than the best school [in Louisiana], and it’s sad to say. The Texas school board wouldn’t allow [Louisiana teachers who applied for jobs] to teach because they weren’t qualified. That just goes to show you what Louisiana think of its kids education.”

What Does the Future Hold?

Fortia has his sights set on opening a restaurant. He already has a theme and menu in mind. His missing ingredient is a partner who will share his vision. His success is the result of the selfless compassion and generosity of strangers, in addition to his strong faith.

“You always have to have faith in God. I knew my God wasn’t gonna forsake me. I just knew it was gonna come, I didn’t know when, but it came. If you don’t have faith, you don’t have anything. That’s what I think.”

Nearly one year post Katrina, Louisiana and many other states still look like a war zone. During an emotional March 8, 2006, press conference country singers Faith Hill and Tim McGraw said they’re “embarrassed,” and “humiliated” at the Katrina reconstruction effort.

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