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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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Geralyn Bleau receives a call from her husband, Gil, as he makes his way home for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. Completion of a ramp to Bleau's FEMA trailer happened in time for Gil, who uses a wheelchair, to come home for Christmas from a nursing home where he spent the last few months. Click 'play' to see Gil come home. (J. Brecher / MSNBC.com)

WAVELAND, Miss. -- Big Gil Bleau is home for the holidays and he and his family want you to know one thing for sure: “If it wasn’t for FEMA, I wouldn’t be here.”

In a story that would thaw the coldest heart, Bleau sits today in his wheelchair in a specially outfitted travel trailer at the top of a lovingly constructed ramp in front of his hurricane-wasted home down on Keller Street a bit north of the railroad tracks. And Gil, his wife, Geralyn, and their kids say they owe it all to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more often the focus of ire in Katrina’s wake.

The tale of how a Massachusetts son hooked up with a New Orleans gal, wove their lives together amid the sun-dappled oaks of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and rode out the region’s worst hurricane to share this joyful reunion has more than a few twists and turns.

It begins nearly a decade ago when Gil and Geri met online in a Beatles chat room. Gil, who stands nearly 6 foot, 8 inches tall and was a onetime pro wrestler and soldier, was working as a computer operator in Pennsylvania. Geri lived in Waveland. Their Internet correspondence blossomed and “I got down here Dec. 23 of ’96 and never went home,” Gil says.

Things were good in the little rambler on Keller Street. Geri was employed at the medical center and Gil found a job at Wal-Mart, first helping remodel the store and then working retail.

'He almost died five times'

But five years ago, Gil needed heart surgery. Either during the 9½-hour operation or shortly after, Gil suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side and kept him in the hospital more than six months. When he finally went home, a series of new complications struck, forcing him back to hospitals and nursing homes time and again.

“He’s almost died five times,” says Geri. “He’s been in the hospital in the last four years, in and out, in and out, close to 900 days.”

In fact, Gil, now 55, had just returned home from a hospital stay when Katrina swept across Florida and eyed the Gulf Coast.

The Bleaus packed up with daughter Lizzie, 21, and their three dogs. Helped by son Jody, 25, a Hancock County sheriff’s deputy, they fled north to a motel to ride out the storm.

When the clouds lifted, the second story of the motel was pancaked, their car had been destroyed and it was clear that the home back in Waveland would be no place for Gil, who by then needed medical care. He was taken to a hospital in Gulfport. Geri and the rest of the family camped out in the Waveland Wal-Mart parking lot and were finally given a tiny camper to put in front of their home.

Bad went to worse when the hospital managed to lose track of Gil. “It was bedlam,” says Geri, 51, tall and blonde and glowing with gratitude at all the kindnesses that have come her family’s way since the storm.

Near the beginning of that list was the effort by Internet pals to locate Gil. They tracked him to a hospital in Mobile, Ala. He was there two months when he fell seriously ill again. “An Alabama state trooper threw us in his car and we got to Mobile in less than an hour,” says Geri, recounting the harrowing 110-mph Code 3 trip. “I thought I was going to meet my maker.”

From Mobile, Gil was taken to a nursing home in Moss Point, Miss., near Pascagoula, where his recovery proceeded until he was well enough to think about returning home. Trouble was, he needed a special trailer from FEMA and a ramp to accommodate his wheelchair.


FEMA reps rated 'awesome'

Starting with the application process, FEMA representatives “have all been awesome,” Geri says. “They talk with you and they let you talk and they listen and they weren’t phony about it; they were genuinely interested.”

Geri is tired of the beating FEMA contractors are taking in some quarters. “Even if they are making big bucks, they have been living in the same conditions and it’s not pretty,” she says. “When you get down to this level, you see that they want to get it right.”

When her trailer showed up 10 days ago, Geri says, the installers worked hours into the darkness setting it up and came back the next day to make sure everything was in order. She moved in to wait for another crew to build Gil’s ramp, hopefully in time for a Christmas reunion.

Things were looking grim when Thursday “I got a knock on the door and all I heard was ‘ramp.’” The crew had arrived. “I gave him the biggest hug,” she says, her voice faltering, “and I gave the fellow with him a hug too.”

“They spent like four hours building it,” she says, now near tears, and “when they got ready to leave, they thanked me for letting them be part of his homecoming.”

In addition to wanting to stick up for the FEMA folks, Geri also wants to counter the negative comments from out-of-area observers who see Katrina victims as living high on government largesse and doing nothing to help themselves. “This was a community like the one you live in,” she says, shaking her head sadly. “Everyone worked and paid their taxes. It was a thriving community.’

And so the twisting, turning story is in the home stretch now as Geri, joined by Lizzie, clutches her cell phone and waits on the ramp for Gil, on his way to the old neighborhood in a van from the nursing home. Jody and new bride, Beth, who have their own trailer next door, stand nearby.

A stack of gifts

The ramp isn’t the only thing that’s ready for Gil. A tiny tree inside the trailer presides over a stack of gifts sent from friends and relatives far and wide. And there’s a special gift from Geri to her favorite Red Sox fan: a handsomely framed photo of Boston’s World Series ring ceremony at Fenway this past April.

The phone rings. “You’re headed down 603? How’re you feeling? A little seasick? You’re going to get a lot sick once you start looking around. … I love you. I love you. Are you really coming? Are you really there? You remember how to get home?”

They hang up with Gil promising to call once he’s in the neighborhood. The minutes tick by and Geri’s phone rings again.

“Coming across Nicholson! Approaching Spanish Trail? Boy, I feel like you are in a presidential motorcade! Two minutes? … I’m waiting for you. I’m outside. I love you.”

Finally, the bubble-top white van lumbers around the corner and there is Gil, guiding his big red motorized chair to the lift and down for hugs all around. He maneuvers the chair adroitly around a mailbox and some other items and quickly up the ramp. A problem with the direction in which the door opens is quickly overcome with a transfer to a smaller chair and FEMA representative Debbie Simon is on hand to promise the door will be switched as soon as possible.

Inside the trailer, Gil announces firmly that “I like it. ... FEMA has come through for me.” And cuddling in his lap, Geri sighs and says, “We got our Christmas wish. I just wish everyone could get theirs.”

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58 COMMENTS

I liked this story very much as it shows that there is something positive going on. This is contrary to what we read that the current administration says that the media only tells the bad news. But, I understand the president does not read news. Too bad. thanks for the story.

WAHOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!

As always in any kind of disaster, or severe need, there are people who are genuine and people who have their own agendas. FEMA like any other organization is made up of the same mix of people, ideally we'd hope they all were so helpful. It's good to read that someone got what they needed, and got it with a sense of care for humanity.
Kind of makes you feel good about (at least in this instance) where some of your tax money is going.

Gil, all us moosedoggers are delighted you made it home for Chritsmas.
Lizzie, please give Papa a hug from us.
Sending lots of hugs and good wishes for the best homecoming ever.
Diana UK

We need more stories like this one. There is far too much negativism going on, both in the stories and in the responses to them. But then, this is America. Keep up the good work, Mike and John. We need to keep this area in the news for a very long time. Their need will not end next week, hopefully by next year. Merry Christmas to everyone.

i visited this earlier....and did'nt know what to say...but now...happiness and health to the Bleau family ...And thanks Mike for the great story

Thank you for such a fine story. I know Geri and Gil, and the past few months have been nothing but nightmares for them. I'm glad FEMA came through for them.

Knowing someone, albeit from an internet list, that has been through such horrors makes these disasters real for us, as we are all guilty of sometimes feeling that disasters happen to others in far away places.

Merry Christmas to you Geri and Gil and all of your families! What a wonderful story in such a tragic time. Cheers to the FEMA members struggling through this and MERRY CHRISTMAS to everyone.

I have been lucky to know this family for several years now, and with all of the trials and tribulations they have gone thru, it is so good to hear a story like this just in time for the Christmas season.

Nothing warmed my heart so much as to know you are all together for Christmas...you have endured so much and are truly the strongest people I know.

Merry Christmas to Gil, Geri, Lizzie, Jody and Beth from your Canadian relatives, Liz, Dan & Yukon. Thanks so much to FEMA for reuniting our 'family'. We join all the moosedoggers in welcoming Gil back where he belongs and are so grateful that our Christmas wish has come true -- the House of Bleaus is back together! Love to all!

I wish more of the good stories about Katrina would be published. I'm so thankful the Bleau family are back together. God bless them and those who made it possible.

Much was said about FEMA not doing enough for the Katrina victims. But, everybody should realize that this was not your average rain storm, it was a tumultuous storm with unbelievable aftermath. Gil Bleau was just one of thousands of vistims that was blessed to have survived and FEMA came through with flying colors. The best of luck to Gil and keep up the good work FEMA.

Mike/John, great story well told and accurate. I know, because Geri is my cousin. What was left out though is that Geri and Gil had no insurance on either the house or the van. As I write this message, Geri is trying to buy a mattress for the trailer so Gil can have a restful sleep (he could not sleep last night). Also not mentioned is Geri's daughter, Lizzie, is autistic, making Geri the primary care provider for both, without any means of transporting them to doctor's appointments, therapy, etc. If you guys could use your influence to get this message to Habitate of Humanity or the like to rebuild her house; or to a car company to replace her van that would be great. If anyone can do it, it is you guys.

More than a Christmas gift: This is a Christmas Miracle. Through thick and thin, good times and really bad, the House of the Bleaus has stood because it's built on love and respect for all creatures, 2-legged and 4-legged. They have practically nothing but always share what they have with anyone in need. It's wonderful to know them, and we Moosedoggers send Moose Magic for Gil's continued recovery.

Working in Jackson County, Mississippi on ADA situations, I see similar stories every day...the most striking was a family with a 6 year old daughter in a wheelchair - the trailer had arrived but was not hooked up to power, water, or sewer - much less a ramp built for the wheelchair. It would be 30 degrees
that night.
Bechtel Lead STR Lloyd Miller came on the scene after dark, and called in a team of electricians, plumbers, and carpenters, working overtime after a 12 hour day. The teamwork was incredible, they finished the job about 11 pm, the carpenters allowing the daughter to pound in the finishing nail for her ramp, which turned out to be an extensive project by itself (due to conditions and codes)...the family was so pleased, they swore that when they rebuild their house, they will build it around that ramp.

Merry Christmas Gil,Jerry,Lizzie,Jody and Beth. Like others I thought this day would never come. When I called yesterday and you told me the wonderful news I was jumping with joy for all of you. I am sorry that the story did not make TV. I had every one here and back in PA watching for you. Still, it was wonderful to see you all on my computer. Stan and I can't wait to see you all in person. We hope you all have a wonderful holiday season. Much love to all, Sis

It was great to read this heartwarming story at a time when 99% of the news is sooo negative!

I am so thankful that this has happened to this couple! Just in time for Christmas! What a great story. But I guess what amazes me, is the first response by K.Stuckey! The president doesn't read the news???? Good grief! If your name was plastered negatively in the news everyday of the year would you read it??? I know I wouldn't! And where did you get that info anyway? Do you know President Bush personnally? Just wondering why we can't have a great, heart touching story about something GOOD happening without SOMEONE cutting down the president or this country! Come on people, lighen up, this is CHRISTMAS and these people deserve the happiness they got and the FEMA people that helped them deserve the "handclaps". Yes there are others who are not going to get the same, and yes, there are FEMA people who really don't care, but lets have some PEACE ON EARTH GOOD WILL TOWARD MEN this season! Let good stories like this run without cutting down the President or America! Which, by the way, could use our PRAYERS not our COMPLAINTS!

FINALLY !! Some GREAT (and POSITIVE)news reporting !!! Keep it up !! Good luck to Gil and
family ! (I would donate a few to help them with a van if I knew where to send it !!) I am also from Massachusetts transplanted to California !

There are many stories like this out there. My heart goes out to all those families who have suffered by the thrones of Katrina and Rita. May God Bless them all and the Christmas Star shine down on them.

i read the story and your plight made me cry. i am so pleased that things have worked out for all of you. GOD BLESS ALL OF YOU! I WISH FOR ALL OF YOU TO HAVE THE BEST MERRY CHRISTMAS YOU HAVE EVER HAD>

What a wonderful story, just in time to celebrate the Christmas together, as a family should be. Too bad there are still so many without. We hope and pray that all of the survivors of the Hurricanes can get a place of their own soon, to call their home. Hopefully the repairs, cleanup, and rebuilding will be done in a timely and efficient manner for all of the residents to get back to some normalcy in their lives.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Hanaka, and Happy every other holiday to one and all, and the best of new years for all of your dreams to come true.

If you can dream,
If you can perceive,
If you can believe,
Then you can achieve

Bless one and all- Assalamu Alaikum (means:peace be upon you)

This is a real Christmas Story. Love, faith and hope prevails. This is the lesson of the original Christmas and it is the same message 2000 years later.
God Bless and Merry Christmas.

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