Video: Fate of 91-year-old Katrina survivor

By Kerry Sanders Correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/16/2005 10:42:56 AM ET 2005-09-16T14:42:56
REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

In a sea of misery, I saw him.

Ninety-one year old Mark Juneau was on the floor. One of thousands stacked haphazardly at the New Orleans airport.

Why did he stand out? Why this man? I'm still not sure.

He was asking for some food and water. But the moaning and the pain was everywhere. I can still hear the anguish of those days I spent at the airport turned triage center and hospital.

Every day, I believe my news reporting helps people, but rarely do I drop my detached reporter role to jump in and help. In this instance I had no choice.

I stopped to help Juneau. He was thirsty and hungry, but seemingly strong.

Desperate search
After our story featuring Juneau aired on NBC, his family saw him on the broadcast and frantically began searching for him. They reached out to me, but because communications were limited, I was hard to contact.

Juneau's two sons and two daughters called hospitals across the country. They knew their father had been moved on a military transport. But where?

They called Birmingham, Dallas and Houston. Finally, they called Atlanta. As they made their fourth call to an Atlanta hospital — bingo. They found him.

I didn't know much of what the family was up to, until a week later.

They e-mailed me to thank me for my compassion, and to say they had found their father.

But the e-mail also contained bad news.

Doctors had put him on a ventilator. Dehydrated and worn out by the trauma, he was dying.

He lived for six more days. It was a time, his family told me, in which they had a chance to say goodbye and for their father to have a dignified final few days of life.

Already a survivor
They began telling me more. I didn't know the man I had reached down to help was already a survivor.

I decided to find out more, and traveled to his daughter's home in Gulf Breeze, Fla.

Born in Echo, La., on a cotton farm, Juneau was the definition of a Cajun. When he first went to school — on horseback, no less — he didn't even speak English. His family spoke Cajun French.

As a teenager, he joined the Navy. It was not only what his family says "was his duty."  It was something those of his generation just accepted as a way of life.

As part of what has been dubbed "The Greatest Generation," Juneau spent 28 years on destroyers and submarines.

When he was 29, a munitions explosion at sea almost killed him.  He was in and out of hospitals for three years.

When he died this week, he still had the shrapnel from that mishap in his body.

Better days to come
I have carried a warm feeling inside me since I met Juneau that night at the airport.

He reminded me that even as the world was collapsing in New Orleans, even the most feeble were holding it together.

I didn't know Juneau, the father of four, grandfather of five, and great-grandfather of two, but I do now.

It was my honor to meet his family and to do another report on this remarkable man. To hear stories of his life and how he always kept the glass half full.

Marie Sarrat, his daughter, told me he would not be angry at how his life ended. He would not look to blame anyone in the aftermath of the chaos. He would, she said, tell everyone around him that there are better days to come.

We sometimes ignore the wisdom of our elders, but in his death, this 91-year old man who survived the Depression and World War II (as well as a rare muscle disease and kidney failure)leaves me with an important lesson: We will overcome the hardships, pull together and rebuild our communities and our lives.

Juneau’s ashes will be interred with his late wife, Emma, at a cemetery in Metairie, La. As was his wish, his family says, an American flag will be placed next to his urn.

Kerry Sanders is an NBC News correspondent. He has received many e-mails responding to his initial report on the triage area at New Orleans airport and the situation of Mark Juneau. Many remarked that the footage of Juneau was one of most enduring images from the Katrina coverage.

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