Forced out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, Susan Rappold is making a new life for herself in Gorham, enjoying the winter snow and even making plans for a traditional Mardi Gras celebration.

But even novel winter fun and a Mardi Gras won’t relieve her homesickness. “I’m happy to be in Maine but I miss New Orleans,” she said. “I’ve been told don’t come back, it’ll break your heart.”

Rappold is planning a Mardi Gras for fellow residents at Village Square on the traditional Fat Tuesday, Feb. 28. Her celebration will feature live music and Cajun cooking. “I’m doing all the cooking,” said Rappold, who was born in Great Britain. “I’m English, but I can cook Cajun.”

Rappold said those forced out of New Orleans by the hurricane would simply celebrate Mardi Gras wherever they’ve settled. “It’s our way of carrying on a New Orleans tradition even though we’re so far from home,” she said.

Reunited with Samantha, her 2-year-old rat terrier, Rappold escaped New Orleans in September in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. When she first arrived in Maine, Rappold stayed with Tim and Denise Fortunato and their family in Buxton. “The Fortunato’s have been wonderful,” she said.

The Fortunato’s even hosted a party celebrating Rappold’s 60th birthday Jan. 29. “They went overboard for me,” Rappold said. “There were so many people there.”

Rappold linked up with the Fortunato’s after they posted a notice on the Internet that they would open their home to a refugee. Since Nov. 15, Rappold has had her own apartment at Village Square, an Avesta housing complex on School Street.

Her apartment has a kitchen, bedroom, living room and bath and the Fortunato’s are still close by if she needs anything. “It’s nice to have my own little space. They still watch over me,” Rappold said of her adopted Buxton family, adding that she loves living in Gorham.

Tim Fortunato said Rappold is doing very well in her “own pad”. “She has no inklings on going back,” he said.

While Rappold yearns for New Orleans, she has no plans to return. “I can’t go back,” she said. “My life has changed big time.”

Rappold lived half of her life in New Orleans. She said it would take years to rebuild, and even then it still would never be the same. “It’s not the buildings. It’s the people – the heart and soul – gone forever,” she said.

The disaster dispersed friends. Sarah Jeanfreau of Bay St. Louis, Miss., said Rappold, who was a hospice volunteer with Jeanfreau, always stood by her. “She helped me through a lot of hard times,” Jeanfreau said.

Jeanfreau phoned Rappold recently. “She told me about her apartment. She seems OK, but I know she’s homesick,” Jeanfreau said.

Rappold’s next-door neighbor at Village Square in Gorham, Ralph Strout, said Rappold talks a little about New Orleans, but he feels she’s adjusting to Maine life. “I think she’s doing pretty good,” he said. “She’s a very good neighbor.”

Rappold said she is most thankful that her pet was saved and she was able to bring her to Maine. She said bodies of animals are still being found in New Orleans. “The bottom line is I have Samantha,” she said.

But Samantha or “Sammie” as she’s nicknamed, wasn’t feeling chipper when she first arrived in Maine. The two had been separated when Rappold was evacuated to a shelter in Louisiana. A temporary foster home was found for Sammie.

After arriving in Maine with only $11 and four bags, Rappold took Sammie to Edgewood Animal Hospital in Gorham where her little pet was diagnosed with heartworms. She praised the hospital, which had started a fund for medical supplies and food to aid pets displaced by Katrina. Edgewood donated their services to help Sammie.

Dr. John Johnston treated Sammie and he later told Rappold he was surprised that Sammie made a full recovery because her condition was so far along by the time he began treating her. “He was amazed that she survived major heartworms,” Rappold said.

Rappold’s pet has had special treatment in Maine. She said Avesta, which donated a couch for her apartment, made a special exception in allowing Sammie to stay there. “Thank God for Avesta,” she said.

She said Sammie feels comfortable in her new surroundings and is adjusting to a colder climate. “She loves the snow,” Rappold said.

But snow wasn’t new for them. Three inches of snow blanketed New Orleans for Christmas in 2004, she said. “She’s adapting very well to Maine,” Rappold said.

The little terrier will not be left out of the Mardi Gras celebration. “Sammie will have her face painted,” Rappold said.

Rappold hopes Mardi Gras will be fun for the residents of nearby Ridgewood and Village Inn, also Avesta complexes, besides those from Village Square. She said Strout is learning to play New Orleans jazz music on his guitar for Mardi Gras.

Rappold expects about 80 people to attend the celebration she’s planning.

Barbara Robinson, a Village Square resident, plans on having fun and donning a red hat. “I have my orders to wear red,” Robinson said.

Rappold is urging residents to wear costumes. She said the Gorham version of Mardi Gras would include the traditional throwing of beads if she was able to find any. But she thought the New Orleans warehouse that carried them was gone. “I’m sure it got flooded,” she said.

She recalled when a million-and-a-half people would line Canal Street in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Those riding on the floats tossed beads to on-lookers. This year, she thought “crazy partying” would happen in the French Quarter. “Mardi Gras is Mardi Gras,” she said.

Her friend in Columbia, Miss., Bobbie Lawrence, said Rappold likes making people laugh. “She loves Mardi Gras,” said Lawrence, who believed Rappold would liven Maine with the festival.

She said Rappold is always upbeat. “If there’s no elevator music, she’ll sing,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence, who has known Rappold for 30 years, recently sent her a box of birthday and Mardi Gras presents, which included an antique velvet opera coat, Mardi Gras bracelets, a Mardi Gras necklace and a Mardi Gras toy for Sammie. “I needed help to carry it to my apartment,” Rappold said because the box weighed so much.

While Rappold will celebrate Mardi Gras in Maine far from the devastation, many who lost homes in Louisiana and Mississippi are living in temporary trailers provided by Federal Emergency Management Agency. Jeanfreau said there are people still living in tents.

“It’s not a walk in the park for anybody,” said Jeanfreau, who lives about 45 minutes from New Orleans.

Rappold said people in Mississippi are driving miles to get food and she said there are not enough people there to cleanup and start rebuilding. Reconstruction hasn’t even started yet, she said. “It will never, ever be the same,” she said about New Orleans.

Rappold is always looking for a way to brighten the lives of others, and she and Sammie are ready to do that in Gorham. At Village Square, the residents know Sammie by name. Rappold said they stroke and pet Sammie and she hopes to take Sammie to nursing homes to cheer the lives of others.

Leaving New Orleans behind, Rappold appears to have accepted relocation and beginning again. “It’s a story of how life goes on,” she said.

She once thought 20 would be a perfect age and then later thought life would begin at 40. Now she believes otherwise. “Life begins when you’re ready for it,” she said.


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