In the past week, there have been Gustav and then Hanna. Not far behind are Ike and, farther out, Josephine.
But for Bar Harbor resident Marge Michaud, there will never be anything like Katrina. It was Katrina, the devastating hurricane that struck New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, that forced Michaud to flee with her daughter. And when Hurricane Gustav bore down on the Louisiana coast last week, Michaud said Saturday, her memories of Katrina came flooding back like the waters of Lake Pontchartrain did three years ago when they poured over the levees into New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. The journey of her life since then has taken her to Natchez and Kiln, both in Mississippi, and back to Slidell before she decided last year to move permanently back to Mount Desert Island. For much of that time, she said, she has struggled to make peace with having her life uprooted by the forces of nature.
“I’ve managed to get my wits about me again,” she said, sitting in a chair amid a chaotic clutter of boxes of magazines, papers and stickers at her Trenton scrapbooking business. Last week she was moving the items out of a Route 3 retail space next to Trenton Marketplace IGA, putting some of them into storage and moving the rest back to her apartment, so she can devote more time to her job as a driver for a rental car company.
“I’m numb still, but it’s not as bad as it was,” Michaud said. “It’s good when you don’t cry every day.”
Michaud, who declined to disclose her age, has always maintained family connections to Maine but last lived in the state nearly 40 years ago. She was a single mother of two children when she decided in 1970 to move her family from Maine to Louisiana to be closer to her sister, whose husband was a Coast Guard commander in New Orleans.
Her sister and brother-in-law had moved to Slidell, as Hurricane Camille bore down on New Orleans and Mississippi in August 1969. Soon thereafter Michaud’s sister fell ill. Michaud went to Louisiana temporarily to care for her and liked the area so much she moved there permanently with her son and daughter the next year.
In Louisiana, Michaud was never without work or things to do. Slidell was 20 miles from New Orleans and about a three-hour drive from Florida, Texas and Arkansas. She worked at a radio station, for the state as a welfare fraud investigator, and for an automobile auction company. She liked staying busy, usually working more than one job, and enjoyed the creative energy of the area. She said one of her neighbors was Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, the famous blues musician.
“I loved music. Music was my passion,” Michaud said. “My life was perfect. The people, the atmosphere, the activity. Who would have thought that an island girl [from Maine] would have been able to do all these things?”
Her son, Mark, grew up to be a police officer and her daughter, Julie, became a wildlife rehabilitator for injured animals. Michaud found a home with its back half built on pilings that overhung a canal off Lake Pontchartrain, and learned how to deal with occasional complications from storms.
“We might flood a little bit, but nothing like Katrina,” she said. “We knew Katrina would be a monster of a storm,” she said.
As Katrina approached, the thing that worried Michaud the most was the potential for flooding, so she didn’t bother boarding up her house when the evacuation order came. She had no idea that instead of being damaged by water, her home would be flattened like a stack of twigs by a tornado spun off by the storm.
Michaud stashed away some valuables in a brick building where she worked as a switchboard operator for a radio station and packed her cats, clothes, food and water into her car. Her daughter, not wanting to leave behind her injured animals, packed her car with her two cats, a squirrel and two screech owls.
They caravaned north, leaving behind Michaud’s son, whose job as a police officer required him to stay. They got as far as Natchez, Miss., across the river from Louisiana, before they stopped to rest and found their way to a church that was letting evacuees stay while the storm passed. Michaud and her daughter ended up staying at Morgantown Baptist Church for several weeks.
“My son said, ‘Don’t come back. There’s nothing here,’” Michaud said. “We slept on pews. The church was full for a while.”
Michaud and her daughter next were taken in by a woman in Natchez who worked at Wal-Mart. The woman and her family had an extra room where the two women and their animals spent another few weeks, waiting for officials to sort out the chaos that followed the storm.
Then, they went home to Slidell. Julie Michaud’s house had been rendered uninhabitable by a fallen tree and, just like her son had said, all Michaud found of her home were a few pilings sticking up out of the water. Most of her neighbors’ houses were gone, too.
“It was awful. It was just awful,” she said, shaking her head at the memory. “I have no life. I have no pictures. Nothing. Everything is gone.”
Michaud lived with a friend in Kiln, Miss., for a while, and went back to her old jobs when commerce was restored. After a while, she set up a FEMA trailer on her property, right where her house used to be.
She said she thought about rebuilding, but decided it wouldn’t be worth it. Her sister, the one who had fallen ill 38 years before, died of unknown natural causes just before the storm hit, and a succession of friends and relatives died in the months afterward, for reasons unconnected with the hurricane. Her children are grown and have lives of their own, she said, and she didn’t want to experience another hurricane like Katrina ever again.
So when the parish of Slidell let it be known last year that all the FEMA trailers would have to be replaced with permanent structures, Michaud decided to move back to Maine.
She secured an available unit at a Bar Harbor residential home for seniors and moved back north last December.
Among her many jobs in Louisiana, Michaud had run a scrapbooking store there and decided to do the same in Maine. The last thing she wanted to do was sit around thinking about how her life used to be.
“It was cheaper than going to a psychiatrist,” she said of setting up shop in Trenton. “This is what I did. It got me back to where I can focus on going forward.”
But news reports about more recent hurricanes that could strike Louisiana — Gustav last week and now possibly Ike — have brought back many memories.
“I’m still not [completely] over it,” she said. “I’m going to cry thinking about it. [But] you can’t stay depressed. Now I can talk about it.”
Michaud said the approaching storms make her worry about her friends and family. Her son is still in Slidell, she said, and her daughter now lives in Monterey, La., on the west side of the Mississippi River from Natchez. Gustav dumped more than a foot of water in her daughter’s yard in Monterey and cut off her power for 36 hours, but otherwise she was OK.
Michaud said she is not concerned about what effect such storms might have if they make their way north along the East Coast, as did Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and Hurricane Bob in 1991. They tend to be rarer and weaker farther north, she said. Bob and Gloria each caused substantial damage in Maine, but their effects were nothing compared to what Katrina did to the Gulf Coast.
Instead, Michaud said, she will have to get accustomed again to long, cold winters.
“I’m OK,” she said. “I’m tough. I grew up in Maine.”