The Katrina survival story you never heard

NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) – Jean Joseph remembers that she couldn’t run, because the rubber in the soles of her shoes had melted into the floor.

She remembers the way her friend seemed to have become a human x-ray, because she could see the bones of his skull and spine as if she were looking right through him.

She remembers the nurses who were so rough with her they made her cry, and the ones who were as gentle as angels.

Almost one year after Hurricane Katrina, on August 26, 2006, Jean Joseph got the FEMA-provided trailer she’d been waiting for.  A friend had allowed her to put it in a big yard in New Orleans East.

The inspector for the trailer company showed her around inside and answered her questions.  Jean had been curious about the stove, and the inspector showed her how to start the burners.  Outside, he showed her the propane tanks and had her sign the paperwork.

Photograph by Gus Bennett

Photograph by Gus Bennett

In the federal government’s initial disorganized response to the storm, journalists reported on the desperate plight of of flood victims who lacked temporary housing.  As a CNN correspondent, I reported the story of thousands of brand new FEMA trailers sitting in a field in Arkansas.  Later, I reported on the Congressional hearings that raised the possibility that formaldehyde in the particle board used inside the trailers was making people sick.  But I had never heard about the potential for FEMA trailer fires.

According to statistics from the Louisiana Fire Marshal’s office , reported by freelance reporter Mark Robinson in Gambit in 2007, there were nearly twice as many fires as usual between 2005 and 2006 that involved  various kinds of mobile homes.  But current Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Brant Thompson says the numbers may not be accurate.  Thompson says his office has changed its data bases four times since Katrina, and he can’t vouch for the report.

On the day she signed the inspection papers,  Jean waited outside the trailer for about 20 minutes for a friend, Bernard Mabry, to join her. Together, they walked around the trailer, and then opened the door to go inside.  Jean has written a screenplay that describes what happened next.  Reading it is not for the faint of heart.

From “And Still I Rise” by Jean Joseph:

Jean walked over to the bed
and started to empty the overnight bag. She noticed a
strange smell.
It smells funny in here.
Suddenly,there is a loud noise behind her.
What the hell?
Jean turn toward the source of the noise. (Bernard) is on fire.
He’s moving animatedly like a wind-up toy and yelling. The
yellow and blue components of the fire separated and are
spreading across the trailer’s interior. Meanwhile,
a massive blue ball of fire is hurling toward her. She
glanced toward the door, but the fear of the fire prevented
her from moving. She decided it would be quicker to turn her
back to the fire than to try to escape. She’s
immediately engulfed in flames and began to scream.
They screamed together in pain and agony.
God please, help us! Lord have
Help! Lord, have mercy. Jesus!

In showing Jean how to use the stove, the inspector had inadvertently left the burners open, allowing propane gas to fill the trailer.  When Jean and Bernard stepped inside, the gas ignited, causing the explosion.

They were both taken to a New Orleans-area hospital, then flown to the Galveston Burn Center in Texas, where Bernard died 19 days later.

In the screenplay, Jean says she saw him in a dream, standing by her hospital bed, alive and healthy, telling her goodbye.  But she fought to stay alive for the sake of her daughter, Mijah, who was just a teenager at the time.

Over the course of six months,  Jean endured multiple skin grafts in Galveston and later in the burn unit at Baton Rouge Medical Center.   Today, she jokes that she has had so many surgeries,  “80 %” of (her) body is a graft.”

Still, 10 years after the fire — and on the eleventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s strike on the Gulf Coast — Jean  says her life is “blessed.”

A local law firm sued the trailer contractor and won a settlement that has allowed her to live independently with her now grown daughter and son.  She got a degree in humanities from Loyola University.  And encouraged by her sister to “put her story out there,” she wrote the screenplay that she will pitch, in person, at a movie producers’ conference in Santa Monica in November.

The screenplay  ends with the fulfillment of a promise Jean says she made to God.  If he would heal her enough to be able to walk again, she would “second line” out of the hospital.   On the day she was discharged in January 2007, with Mardi Gras beads and a parasol provided by nurses, Jean kept that promise.

From “And Still I Rise,” by Jean Joseph:

Wait ’til you hear the music before
you come out the room.
Deidre hugged Jean before she left the room. Deidre put the
beads around Jean’s neck and hugged her. When she hears the
music, she dances out her room and down the hallway.

Jean is casting for actors to perform a “pitch reel” of her screenplay. Auditions will be held Saturday, Sept. 10, at 3233 St. Bernard Avenue, from 10 am until 4 pm.