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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

Very Merry christmas, and a happy and peacefull New Year to Gill, Gerri and to all your family.
God Bless,

THANK YOU for a POSITIVE government response story. I'm sooooo grateful for Gil and Geri that their family is back together after so much trial and heartacke. Merry Christmas to you - and to Mike and John. Thanks for your tireless work being our eyes.

Very Nice Christmas kind of story. We in Gulf Breeze, FL know how you feel. Thanks for sharing with us.

What a wonderful story. I'm sure that there are many miracles that are occurring that remain untold. It has been my experience that if we are looking for postive things that is what we find. God Bless you all.

I have been e-mailing some of these stories to my contacts and this is one that will get mailed tonight with a reminder to each of them to be very grateful for everything they have.

To Geri, Gil, and their wonderful pups -- so good to hear you are getting back to "normal", especially in time for the Holiday Season. Best wishes to you -- Robyn, David, and the pups from Ziffany.

Great story and what a wonderful homecoming for one family who has been through so much! It's nice to hear positive, heart-warming stories instead of everything negative. Merry Christmas to Gil, Geri, their family and EVERYONE that helped re-unite this family.

May they and everyone have a Merry Christmas and a beautiful New Year.

Thank God! A positive story on a special day. Sure FEMA has missed the mark at times and we as a people deserve better. However, FEMA is made of PEOPLE and I am confident that they want to help those in need and are doing so. Kudos to MSNBC for circulating story that seldom gets out.

Glad you made it home finally. Your sister has been very worried about her little brother.

How did you ever get such a great looking wife?? This is a different way to see your family for the first time.

As a FEMA employee, I know that the majority of FEMA's employees have huge hearts and want to help despite the continued mismanagement that's going on. Thanks to the media for this story.

As a Katrina evacuee, I also have great respect for ALL the FEMA workers who have been kind and understanding of this tragedy. Each and every person that I spoke too was professional as well as patient. I hope you guys will have a BLESS NEW YEARS and continue your strive of success!!!!

What a wonderful event! After hearing about all the behind the scenes stories from Geri about the hardships and "adventures" it is heartwarming to hear about something good finally happening. So glad you are finally together again. Greetings and congratulations from Chris, Savannah, Bergen, Bronwyn and the SRD, Copper.

Having been a second tier sub-contractor to FEMA for three months I really enjoyed this article. As with everything, there are good and bad people, both with the victims and with the sub-contractors; but with this incident the goodwill has been, and hopefully continues to overwhelm the bad. When there is need, mans goodness seems to bubble to the surface.
I want to thank the author for bringing us this story, and to thank the Bleaus' for their kind words.

Let see if Brian Williams has something to say tonite.
He and his writers always are talking negative.
Thank you Fema for all your fine work.
Ed Perez, Norwalk,Ca.

Way to go "BAMA HIGHWAY PATROL" Semper FI.

From another Canadian Moosedogger, Merry Christmas Geri, Gill, Lizzie, Jody and Beth. All the best to you in 2006.

Hey,...Gil and Geri....HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!!

Happy Holidays! I was so glad to see this story. I knew you from Lakeshore Industries and the Waveland group home. I am so glad you are all together.

A sweet, wonderfully well-written story, the kind that yanks your emotional chain. All the best to the Bleau family; I hope there are many good days ahead for them.

Val, i wish you would stop sending some kind of weirdo blessings ....to Mississippians!!!...are you an isurgent????....hope not

I must say that this hurricane has been a very awakening experience for me. I am only 25 years old and this is the first major hurricane I have ever been through (we are about an hour and a half from the MS Gulf Coast). Nonetheless, I was a newleywed (of only 2 months) when this tragedy occured. My husband and I were spared but several of my close family were not. It's a shame it takes something like this for most people to realize what their priorities should be!!! I am one of those people that felt guilt (and still feel it) because I survived with no loss of any kind. TO SAY THE LEAST, I AM NOT BRAGGING....but it's never a reality until you live it. Recently my husband and I took a ride to the Gulf Coast and could not believe our eyes!!! I would have to say that you don't truely get the full affect until you live it and see it first hand. Back to the story, it's very good to hear that someone so very needy gets what they have coming to them. I wish this family and all others feeling the pain of Katrina the very best for the New Year!

Geri, Gil & the 4 legged kids,
I'm so happy for you that FEMA came thru and Gil is back home! What a great story!
I'm so fortunate that our friends Brian & Dana Knesal (from Seattle) made the trip to your house to take pictures of the devastation to show what it's really like. Words just can't describe the devastation, but the pictures sure did.
MERRY CHRISTMAS to the Bleau family.

Wow what a story, and could not be at a better time, it does my heart good to see this story, as I feel too many people have lost the true meaning of Christmas and this is what is should be about. I am so happy for you all that you were able to bring the family back together and at such a special time. I too, feel like FEMA has really gotten a bad rap, I know they have been working very hard, long hours, and were doing as much as they could and can. I am sure there are many things they do and will continue to do and could not be possible without them. Reading a story such as this sure makes one count their blessings for what they have, to see a family overcome all they have, God Bless you all and may the New Year bring you better times.

Hi everyone..it's me, geri bleau..the mama of the house of bleaus! I wanted to take a moment to thank John and Mike for documenting one of the happiest days of our lives..you know, since we lost everything in the storm, pics and movies included..it means a lot that we can "see" the Yank's homecoming, and even better,share it with people who seem to care! I think we are all searching for the good in life, and in our case, we are lucky enough to know that the good in life in right here, in our front yard, and in places like Jerry West's heart. You see....Waveland may be down, but never,ever out. This is the kind of place you want to raise your children. Jerry's mom, Connie, has been my role model ever since our Lizzie was diagnosed with autism. Instead of dwelling what Jerry couldn't do...Connie stubbornly ferreted out what Jerry COULD do...and the rest, as they sasy,is history! It all came to a beautiful moment in Waveland history three years ago...when Lizzie and Jerry were honored. You see, the Waveland Civic Association has a St Patrick's Day Ball and Parade, and it is a great honor to be chosen a maid, and the greatest honor of all is to be the Grand Marshal (a man) and the Colleen, who reigns as a "queen". That special year, Jerry was the Grand Marshal, and our Lizzie was a maid. I will never ever forget the night of the Ball. We were sitting backstage, waiting for the presentation of the court, and Jerry was a nervous wreck. He sat with me and Lizzie and he chattered nervously. I finally told him "Jerry, these people are ALL heere because they love YOU..and they want to honor you. He gave me that famous Jerry-grin...the one with the twinkling eyes...and when he went out to meet his crowd, you could feel the warmth, all the way to the LA MS state line and back! Lizzie's brother, Jody, proudly escorted his sister, and when she was announced, the entire room of people stood and applauded her. This wqas the proudest moment of our lives! Never before had a handicapped person served on the Irish Court, and this year they had two of the best! Sadly, all pictures and movies of the event are gone forever..but no one can take away that memory fromme...it's in my heart forever...just like it is in Connie's. What made it even more special was the Colleen's kindnesses toward Lizzie...she made sure that Lizzie was involved in each and every aspect of the ball,parade and parties..which added even more to the wonder of it all!

So, you see...a city that opens their hearts to "special people" is a city that is far too special to "die".

Hey Jerry...let Lizzie and me know when you're ready to go gig some flounders buddy!!

As for all of you who wrote and were so kind to share in our happiness..I thank you on behalf of my family. The Yank is having a little trouble adjusting to Life in a FEMA Trailer..but with a lot of laughter, a lot of prayer,and a lot of love...we'll get thru this just like we've gotten thru all the other Bad Things....together. After all..we ARE The House of Bleaus, Waveland!!!
Happy New Year each and every one of you reading this!

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