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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