Interview of Jo-Anne Paquette by the editor.
Jo-Anne is the director of St. Joseph’s House, the MH mission house that works in the Madawaska Valley, the area where Combermere is located.
St. Joe’s, as it’s called, is on the highway between the two parts of the center of the village. It lies in a shallow dip, and though all around it trees were broken and fallen, neither the house nor the yard was harmed.
When did you realize that the storm was something more than the ordinary?
At first that’s what we thought it was. It was storming and suddenly the wind went wild and the windows shook. Rain came in all the windows, and we ran around shutting them.
That didn’t last long, but soon afterwards, we heard chain saws. But we didn’t realize how bad it was until we went out to the highway and saw the huge trees that had fallen across it and the hydro (electric) lines down and frayed everywhere and the broken hydro poles.
The next morning, how did you go about planning out how to respond to the emergency?
It was hard to know what to do. Our immediate response was to go to the community center to see what the needs were. They told us they already had lots of help. By 8 a.m. they already had 200 volunteers.
For the most part, we ended up just responding to needs as they came up, moment by moment.
What did you do on Thursday, the day after the tornado?
A woman phoned sobbing. She was from a nearby town and yesterday evening she had been talking to her friend who was not well, when the phone went dead. She had been frantic all night and wanted us to check on her. The friend lived maybe a half mile away from us.
So I got in the car and went. There was a roadblock near our house, and the man told me I could leave if I wanted to, but I wouldn’t be able to get back.
I told him the situation and that I wouldn’t be long, and begged him to let me go and come back. Finally, he let me.
The road I went on had been badly hit—lots of trees broken and down. I called into the friend’s house, "Are you all right?" She said, "Yes," and I left. I got home around 9 a.m. and was able to reassure the woman who had phoned us.
By then people started coming. On the radio they were saying that Combermere was in a state of emergency.
So what were we to do? The radio was asking for men with chainsaws. Cutting and hauling logs is a man-thing. We’re women. We can’t move trees.
I figured people need to eat. So we started cooking up big pots of food.
I sent Emmanuella Kim and Diane Davis to scout around and see what people needed. I told them to ask three questions: What do you need? Can we bring food? Does anyone need a place to stay? Diane also took some photos.
Peter Lyrette, the man staff who lives at MH and works at our house, came over and talked. He, like the rest of the men in the volunteer fire department, had been up all night. Peter had evacuated people in boats, taken part in the house-to-house check to see that all people were accounted for, and consoled people.
Other crews of men had worked all night sawing and moving the trees that had fallen across the roads so that those roads could be opened.
At around 11 a.m. I drove to the marina which I heard had been badly hit to see what I could do. I asked the wife if she could use food. She said, "Yes. The guys could use it." So later on we brought them food.
We were on the phone all day, assuring the people who phoned and asked, that we were all right, and trying to respond to whatever needs we could.
The community center had lots of food; people just kept bringing it. But all they had were electric stoves and since the power was out, they had no way to heat it.
We have a wood stove, though not a big one. So people from the community center brought their food over and we heated it, as much as we could at one time. Volunteers brought food back and forth between us and the community center all day.
The power came back two days after the tornado, so we didn’t have to do this long.
What are some other things you did or that happened over the following days?
The parish had a Mass of Thanksgiving on Friday. It was packed.
We tried to follow our usual schedule, to keep some sort of normalcy in the midst of everything.
We visited our friends to express friendship and offer whatever kind of help we could.
I borrowed the motorboat from MH to get to the most devastated area, the campground. The owners are friends of St. Joseph’s House, and the road there was blocked.
I was shaken when I saw the devastation. Smashed up trailers, cabins without roofs, the owners’ house with a big tree smashed through it.
They have lost their livelihood, the vacation place that they have been building up and improving for years. I was visiting with the wife, who was, of course, very shaken. But she said, "I could tell you 20 stories of miracles that happened here. God has really protected us."
By Sunday, we were all exhausted, and we took the day off. We’d been going on adrenalin like everyone else in Combermere.
The men working on the electricity, for example, had been working 12–15 hour shifts.
Many of the men around here have experience working with trees and wood, and they were hard at work cutting down dangerously broken and leaning trees, chain-sawing, and clearing the debris.
Tell us about the Sunday Mass in the parish.
It was powerful. The church was packed; people were standing in the aisles. I hadn’t seen that many people in church since a year ago last Easter.
The homily, too, was powerful and so positive.
How have Madonna House people been involved in the local area?
Even though this is a very busy time at Madonna House, a number of them helped. Some came on their day off. And the following week when there were fewer volunteers at the community center, some came and helped serve meals. Madonna House also made a load of sandwiches and gave them to the community center.
After the first few days, when the Madonna House men had their hands full dealing with the trees hit on their property, some of them helped some of our friends and neighbors with theirs. They also helped clean up at the Anglican and Methodist cemeteries, both of which had been badly hit.
Fr. Louis Labrecque was due to be at Cana Colony for the week, but since he is skilled as a logger, Fr. Paul Burchat went instead, and Fr. Louis cut trees all week. Scott Eagan, also skilled in this work, helped as well, though he could not be spared fulltime because of the needs at the farm. Other MH men also helped with the bush work.
What were you doing and what was happening after Sunday?
The first few days, we had gone on our own bringing food to workers off the beaten path. But after that, the community center had fewer volunteers. So we went there and put in shifts at their kitchen. We all spent a fair amount of time first at the center, and then at the Anglican Church, where they moved the location of the meal. We mainly helped with the food, serving, cleaning up, and so forth.
People were also coming there to talk and some of them were just weeping over their losses.
Since the work with the meals wasn’t constant while we were on shift, we also visited with people at the center and listened.
How were you surviving all this?
One of the main things I felt was powerless. And so much of the time I didn’t know what to do. On Tuesday I mowed our lawn, and then felt guilty for doing our own work.
What were some of the hard things for the local people?
Some people had damage to their houses. Some had lost many or all the trees in their yards.
And one very hard thing, especially for the older people, is that the face of Combermere is changed forever. Some places that were filled with trees are now empty.
Some of the trees were up to 150 years old. They won’t come back in anyone’s lifetime.
People were in shock and in grief. How quickly everything can change!
People were weeping, weeping, weeping.
What spiritual insights did people have?
I heard a number of people say, "God really protected us." And some others said, "Our Lady of Combermere really protected us."
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