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The Larches Survive the Floods, Can't Escape the Tears

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 15, 2005

One in a series chronicling the Larches of New Orleans as they rebuild their lives in the Washington area

As the nurse in the pediatric ward of Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring gently removes the catheter from the top of her hand, 5-year-old Kristen Larche begins to cry.

"Look at Daddy. It's okay," murmurs 38-year-old New Orleans schoolteacher Todd Larche, cradling his daughter. "It's okay. It's okay. Let me kiss your eyes," he soothes, brushing his lips across the little girl's face. He continues to hold her and her cries fill the hospital room.

There have been endless tears since Hurricane Katrina two weeks ago. Since Larche, his physician wife, Michele, 39, their teenage nephew and two elderly parents fled New Orleans the day after the storm.

Tears: for the house that's under water, the wedding pictures on the table.

For the patients Michele couldn't check on before she left, the practice of elderly and low-income patients she built in four years and lost in less than a day.

For all the water and diseased muck that has drowned their whole lives. That probably drowned their dogs.

It's water that forced them to drive until they fell asleep in their cars outside Chattanooga, forces them now to sleep in his in-laws' Silver Spring home; in one room that Todd and Michele, who is 8 1/2 months pregnant, share with Kristen and Todd's 76-year-old father. It's water that keeps rolling down the faces of all the people he cares about most in the world.

And just as when the levees broke, he can't stop this water, either. Not in the eyes of his wife, or his 81-year-old mother-in-law, who has Alzheimer's disease and doesn't really understand.

And Lord, though he's got to be strong for everybody, he can't even hold back the water that keeps spilling from his own eyes.

In New Orleans, Todd and Michele lived 10 minutes from Todd's father, who lived a mile from Michele's mother. They all rode out the storm in a downtown hotel. Todd's sister's son -- 17-year-old Elliott -- was there, too. They left their dogs -- Simba the Rottweiler and Sonny the black cocker spaniel -- in the back yard, with a door allowing them into the garage and utility room and a big dispenser of water and food. The plan was to return afterward, assess the damage, then head to Silver Spring, where Michele's niece was getting married.

Tuesday morning, the worst seemed over. By afternoon, as water filled the streets, those who could were leaving. The Larches didn't want to go at first, "then the radio started talking about New Orleans as if it was Armageddon," Todd says. Hotel workers were evacuating and the streets erupted in looting.

They decided to leave but were determined to go back for their dogs. "We were going to break the law," Todd says. But a barge was blocking the main interstate and the streets into East New Orleans were impassable.

Telling the story, Todd begins to cry. He pulls up his shirt and covers his face. "I didn't . . . nobody . . . it's always . . . I mean there was no time to prepare for this thing."

When they got to Silver Spring, the Larches lost themselves in the rush of activity for the wedding that Friday. Michele's sister and brother-in-law, Cassandra and Ronald Wallace, were in the throes of last-minute preparation. The Larches had to buy new clothes -- a local wedding boutique donated the same flower girl dress for Kristen as the one hanging up in their home in New Orleans. Todd had to get hypertension medicine for his dad, John, and a haircut. Michele's mom -- Geraldine Gumbel Cooper, whom everyone calls "Mere Mere"-- needed her diabetes and Alzheimer's medicine.

After the wedding, the hurry-up-and-wait of their reality settles in. Mere Mere inquires about Sacred Heart Church, which closed its doors 30 years ago. She keeps asking, "Is there's water in the church? Is there's water in the church?"

"Don't worry about your house," she tells Michele when she sees her daughter crying. "You can come live with me."

Last week, at Eckerd, when Todd went to pick up the prescriptions -- he had explained his situation to the pharmacist earlier -- another pharmacist passed along a $25 gift certificate. Todd turned away from the counter and cried.

For a week and a half, Todd manned the phones-- calling FEMA to figure out his options, calling the bank about his car note (you don't have to pay for four months) and calling his mortgage company (call us at the end of every month, but you really should pay if you can), taking Kristen to school where the nephew got her enrolled.

Then more horror: The little girl fell ill Tuesday night.

She still suffers from febrile seizures the doctors said she'd outgrow. She was watching a video when she sat up, saying she felt dizzy. Her body went limp, her eyes fixed and staring. Shortly after midnight, her parents rushed her to the nearest hospital. As Todd carried her into the emergency room, she urinated and vomited down his shirt. She convulsed and the doctors medicated her.

The Larches slept fitfully on chairs in their daughter's hospital room. Now they're tired, but Kristen is fine. As they prepared to leave yesterday, a hospital liaison came in. If it's okay, she says, the staff would "kind of like to adopt your family." She wants to know what they'll need for the new baby.

D.C. Catholic Charities gave us a car seat, Michele says, but she can't say much else. It's hard for her to be in this position. "I'm used to saying no, I'm okay, I've got everything," she says. She's used to waiving co-payments for patients who don't have the money. "Yesterday we went to the thrift store, and Mere Mere started to cry."

Michele cries and stops. And cries. "I think about my dogs and what they went through because I know they drowned. I know they did."

She cries sometimes when she thinks about her baby, Todd Jr., due at the end of October. She's afraid because of all they've been through. "I think he's going to be sad," she says. "How can you go from being so happy -- because we tried for a long time to have him -- to being so sad?"

The first pregnancy was between her residency and her job. She clipped coupons and shopped for cheap milk in faraway places. They had bills and student loans, but Todd was working. This pregnancy was going to be different.

Tuesday, Todd got through to the agency that manages the payroll for New Orleans teachers. He found out he has only one more paycheck coming because the city is out of money. And his insurance, the only insurance the family has, will terminate at the end of the month.

His wife, Todd says, "is the primary breadwinner of the family, and I'm so proud of her and what she's been able to accomplish. But the one little requirement she does have of me is, 'Todd, you take care of insurance.' " And now he can't provide that.

But at least, on this day, he still has it for his little girl.

He was supposed to apply for a teaching job yesterday at a D.C. charter school, but the trip to the hospital put that on hold. Maybe tomorrow. Todd Larche is looking at his life, but right now it's so hard to see clearly.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company