On Saturday, Jacqui Stavis, a New Orleans massage therapist, became the nation’s first lightning fatality of 2016, according to National Weather Service records.
Friends described Stavis, 28, as a joyful, petite sprite who loved music, art and New Orleans. She died at Lady of the Sea General Hospital in Cut Off one day after lightning struck her campsite at the T-Bois Blues Festival in Larose.
Longtime WWOZ Radio program director Dwayne Breashears knew Stavis through a tight-knit group of New Orleanians who travel each year to the Burning Man festival in Nevada.
“We are all just numbed by it,” Breashears said of Stavis’ death, adding that it seemed she’d been in New Orleans all of her life, though she grew up in New England, New York and Wisconsin. “She just dove into the culture of New Orleans, just became a part of it. She just wanted to do positive things here.”
Bethany Bultman, of the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, described Stavis as “a force for good” who had put down roots in a city she had long admired.
Bultman, a friend of Stavis’ grandmother in Provincetown, Massachusetts, said that even as a teenager, Stavis would immediately listen to any New Orleans CD or read any New Orleans book that Bultman suggested.
“She loved the culture of New Orleans; she couldn’t get enough,” said Bultman, who wasn’t surprised when Stavis moved here with her boyfriend, musician Jake Gold, after the couple graduated together in 2009 from Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
A few years later, when Bultman reigned as queen of the Krewe du Vieux parade in 2013, she wasn’t surprised that Stavis was one of the first people she saw in the crowd. “Jacqui embraced everything and she participated and she was everywhere,” Bultman said.
Friday’s lightning strike injured two other women, ages 24 and 30, who had sought shelter from a severe storm in the same small tent with Stavis. One woman was transported to University Medical Center in New Orleans, while the other remained in a hospital not far from the festival, according to a statement by Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre.
Others who spent the night in tents on festival grounds were shaken by how hard the storm hit and described winds, rain, thunder and lightning so ferocious that people on opposite ends of the same small tent couldn’t hear each other even if they shouted.
After receiving a call about the injuries shortly after 10 p.m. Friday, Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies, volunteer firefighters and paramedics went to the scene and found Stavis unresponsive and the other two woman suffering from electric shock. All three were taken to a hospital.
A large Labrador dog also died during the incident, Webre reported.
No cause of death was available for Stavis.
However, National Weather Service alerts note that 10 percent of lightning strikes can result in death, often from cardiac arrest or irreversible brain damage. Though the chance of being hit by lightning in a given year is less than 1 in 1 million, it does happen regularly. Over the past 30 years, the United States has averaged 49 reported lightning fatalities each year.
The low-key, three-day T-Bois event calls itself a blues festival, though it also features other types of music. It offers home-cooked Cajun food, catfish, crawfish, beer and camping for all ticket-holders and is held on an alligator and crawfish farm owned for more than a century by the family of festival producer “Alligator Mike” Falgout, who modeled the festival after large crawfish boils hosted by his family.
Falgout did not return messages left about the incident.
New Orleanians who have attended T-Bois describe it as a relaxed event run largely by local volunteers. Two small stages mostly feature acts who play some variation on the blues; it is closed out each year by New Orleans guitarist Anders Osborne.
Children and families often mill through the grounds, and many people camp there overnight. The capacity is limited to 1,200, and motorized vehicles are prohibited.
An area of the site, the Burning Village, is reserved as an arts village modeled after Burning Man. Each year, participants like Stavis create special, often large-scale art, including a giant sculpture that is burned during the last night of the festival in a controlled fire watched by local firefighters. This year’s sculpture was of a 30-foot alligator wielding a guitar.
Stavis’ brother, Erick Yingling, recently visited her in New Orleans. He said his sister had created a broad, de facto family that went beyond actual kin to include “musicians and misfits, entrepreneurs and artists, community activists and attorneys.”
Now, he said, that entire community was devastated by its sudden loss. “Jacqui was our heart,” he said.
“Jacqui will be missed by many, many people, because she got along with everyone. I can’t tell you how much we’ll miss her,” said her grandmother, Barbara Rushmore, 91, of Provincetown, who said she sent love to the two women who were injured in the incident. She expressed hope that her granddaughter would be buried within visiting range of her, perhaps in the cemetery that edges the family home in Provincetown.