Weathering the winds of fame Hurricane Katrina Survivor

“T-Bone” takes Hollywood by Storm

By: Valerie Howard

New Orleans native Thomas “T-Bone” Quinn thought he had escaped the storm when he was flown out of hurricane-devastated land and into the glamorous surrounds of the Hollywood Hills.

He was wrong.

Just a few weeks after being evacuated to the Dream Center in Echo Park, he finds himself caught in a storm of another kind: The unexpected whirlwind of fame, and controversy.

Quinn has inexplicably garnished more media coverage than any other Hurricane Katrina evacuee in Southern California. He has been called a hero or a hustler in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Associated Press,  Daily Breeze and the San Diego Union Tribune.

Quinn calls the recent attention—the positive coverage, anyway—a blessing, and credits it to his renewed faith.  Everything is coming full circle, he says, and he has no intentions of stepping out of the spotlight.

The spotlight brightened two weeks ago when a Los Angeles Times reporter put Quinn—a pipe fitter with alligator-catching experience—in contact with Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who has unsuccessfully hired a string of professionals to catch Reggie, the alligator hiding in Lake Machado in Harbor City.

Hahn invited Quinn to join the gator-wrangling effort on a recent Saturday. Under the scorching afternoon sun, reporters, TV producers and cameramen gathered at the edge of a roped-off Lake Machado to meet the hurricane survivor turned media sensation.

The Louisiana man looked confident but uncomfortable. He stood before the media in faded jeans and a matching shirt with cut-off sleeves. He kept his head down and folded his tattooed arms across his chest. In the background, gator wranglers from Florida sputtered by on a pontoon boat to check out their competition.

“Where I come from there ain’t a gator you can’t catch,” said Quinn. “This lake ain’t nothing. It’s a mudhole.”

And so began his press conference. In the days to follow, his unpolished, off-the-cuff responses would be challenged, disproved and ridiculed. Here is a recap of Quinn’s most unforgettable public statements, and the backlash they caused:

T-Bone moment #1: Within minutes of stepping in front of the cameras, Quinn professed to killing hundreds of alligators in the swamps of Louisiana. “I’ve even been bit by one,” he said. “He got me when I was twisting. We was killing him and he didn’t want to be got. We got him in the boat. You grab them by both feet and flip them over and stab them in the back of the neck, through the brain right there.”

The Backlash: City officials, shocked by Quinn’s violent details, demanded that he pass a background check and get insurance before stepping onto the lake. Until then, he was asked to leave Harbor City Park.

T-Bone moment #2: As Quinn got more comfortable with the crowd; he talked about the wranglers from Orlando-based Gatorland. “I just hope I can keep Gatorland off my back. I ain’t telling them nothing. That pontoon boat is retarded.”

The Backlash: The word ‘retarded’ would resonate in journalists’ ears, and would eventually reach those of the Florida wranglers. Two days later Gatorland told the Associated Press that Quinn was the reason they left Harbor City.

T-Bone moment #3: When Hahn asked “Are you doing this as a thank-you to Los Angeles?”  The memorable moment was not Quinn’s slow answer (after pausing he whispered “yes”), but his agent’s reaction to his response.

Jennifer Burns-Hill—a waif-thin blond who had been occupied with handing out her husband’s business cards and kissing her Chihuahua—threw her arms in the air and shook her head.

“I think he should be paid,” Burns-Hill later said into the cameras. “When he first told me about Reggie, I just knew he was going to do it. I mean, this is TV movie of the week!”

The Backlash: Confused TV producers called Burns-Hill “T-Bone’s Friend” on primetime news.  What’s more, she was later described in papers as “the agent who is hoping to turn [Quinn’s] story into a made-for-TV-movie.”

But back at the press conference, the questions jumped from gator wrangling to life saving when Quinn recounted how he drove to safety when Hurricane Katrina hit.

“Driving down the road, pitch black, wind whipping, sticks hitting the sides of my car, I kept looking at the gas gage getting lower and lower. We were in the middle of nowhere.”

Quinn said he saved two people from the storm by giving them a ride. Eventually, he drove to Jackson Mississippi, where he found shelter, and was given the choice to fly to Los Angeles.

“All I had left was this one car and they said ‘you’re gonna have to leave it’ and I said ‘yeah right. I’m gonna leave the only transportation I got left, the only thread to life?’ well I left it. I said ‘let’s just go ahead and do this. Whatever happens happens.’”

Today, while across the country his fellow Louisianans are struggling to rebuild their lives, Thomas “T-Bone” Quinn is learning the ropes of Hollywood and the power of bad publicity.

“I’ve never done this before.” He says. “I’m from Louisiana. I am a swamp rat.”

With Hahn by his side, he has every intention of getting back out on Lake Machado. And although he isn’t asking for payment, dollar signs are in his eyes.

“I catch Reggie and I probably won’t have to work again.” he says “Think about it, hurricane victim comes to town, catches the gator, saves the town…and makes a new home. Ain’t that crazy?”

For now, he wants to start a website to raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims. “And myself, because I am a Katrina victim,” he says.

Since the press conference, Quinn and Burns-Hill have parted ways. She insists he is a potentially dangerous conman who tricked her with his charms; he says she was never a real agent.

While Quinn’s plans for the future seem bright, he’s smart to keep his fingers crossed, because by the time you read this story, Hollywood’s interest in this hurricane evacuee may have already blown over.

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