By Michaela Kron
Mary Kate Olsen and her family planned to ride out Hurricane Katrina when it approached their hometown of Metairie, La., just west of New Orleans.
But a mandatory evacuation order Aug. 28, 2005, left them no choice.
“The sheriff of Jefferson Parish got on TV and said, ‘Everyone get out now because we’re not going to come looking for your bodies when you don’t evacuate,’ ” said Mary Kate’s mother, Kathy Olsen, who had lived in the New Orleans area her whole life.
Like hundreds of thousands of others, the Olsens — parents Skip and Kathy, Mary Kate, and her older brother, Sean — had little time to pack or plan for their lives as evacuees, but their move had a unique impact on Riverwood International Charter School in Sandy Springs.
Of about 60 students from Louisiana who escaped Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and enrolled at Riverwood as freshmen, Mary Kate was the only one who completed all four years of high school there.
At Riverwood’s graduation May 23, Principal Eddie Echols presented Mary Kate, 18, with a paperweight that reads, “You made the difference.”
“When he started talking about Katrina, I actually got really teary-eyed, and I didn’t think anything of it,” Mary Kate said. “The fact that they actually remembered and it wasn’t passed over made me feel a little bit special.”
Her journey to graduation began with a 17-hour drive from New Orleans to Atlanta in August 2005.
In the hasty evacuation before Katrina devastated large parts of southeastern Louisiana and coastal Mississippi, the Olsens picked up Kathy’s parents, then came to metro Atlanta to stay with Skip’s sisters, Michelle Hinson of Sandy Springs and Dennise Fadler of Alpharetta.
Hinson and Fadler helped them settle into Sandy Springs by providing a car and a place to stay for several weeks, then finding a house for the family to rent. Many of Hinson’s friends provided the Olsens essential living items.
“It was amazing how the Sandy Springs community came out and provided clothes and food and furniture,” Hinson said.
Mary Kate and Sean, who was a high school senior, had to start over at Riverwood, though Sean, now 21, returned to Metairie once the school system reopened a few months later.
“It’s hard enough to start high school, much less in a different state, much less coming after a hurricane without anything and without my friends,” Mary Kate said.
Initially, she thought many students focused too much on her status as a Katrina refugee. “Yeah, it’s part of who I was, but I think they sort of defined me as that poor little girl who came from Katrina,” Mary Kate said. “I got the pity, and I didn’t like pity.”
She adjusted to the new school and community with the help of Emmalee Hinson, her cousin and Michelle’s daughter, who also graduated from Riverwood this year.
The adjustment became easier after Mary Kate fulfilled her passion for the performing arts by joining chorus and the Riverwood Players acting troupe.
“I’m pretty sure that without those, I wouldn’t have found my place in the school,” she said. “It’s a way to connect with other people.”
Although Mary Kate began as an actress and had parts in most of the school’s productions, she discovered an interest in the technical aspects of theater with “Dearly Departed,” Riverwood’s fall 2008 production. This spring, Mary Kate served as stage manager and lighting designer for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
In addition to the performing arts, Mary Kate spent a couple of summers volunteering at Chastain Horse Park, where her mother is a therapeutic riding instructor.
Mary Kate also volunteered with the therapeutic riding program and worked with adults and children with physical and mental disabilities.
Now Mary Kate is preparing to return to her New Orleans roots.
In the fall she will be a freshman at the city’s Loyola University, Kathy’s alma mater, where she intends to pursue a degree in theater arts and technical theater. She also plans to study education to prepare for a career as a high school theater teacher.
Kathy is proud that her daughter chose to attend Loyola but will miss her when she moves back to New Orleans.
“I’m of two minds,” Kathy said. “I’m delighted that she is going to Loyola because I know she’ll love it. It’s a very small school, and you get a lot of personal attention. So I wanted that for her, but another part of me wanted her to stay close.”
Classes start Aug. 31, four years and two days after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. And if another hurricane threatens to strike during her college career, Mary Kate can come home again to Sandy Springs.