Part 2

The Larches' New Lives Are Perpetually on Hold

Catholic Charities case worker Iris Acevedo guides Todd Larche and his mother-in-law, Mere Mere, through paperwork to request aid.
Catholic Charities case worker Iris Acevedo guides Todd Larche and his mother-in-law, Mere Mere, through paperwork to request aid. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 17, 2005

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

It's shortly before noon and Todd Larche is on hold. Again.

It's his fourth call this morning, and an automated message says a Social Security operator will be with him in seven minutes.

He waits.

Sitting on the deck of relatives' Silver Spring home, he pulls on an unfiltered Camel. He stopped smoking years ago. But he "picked up that nasty habit again" after the hurricane. It helps pass the time.

He has made more than a hundred calls -- Midland Mortgage, State Farm, United Teachers of New Orleans, FEMA, Red Cross, Montgomery Crisis Center. Spent hours on the phone, one please-hold-or-press-seven-for-more-options minute at a time.

In his old life in New Orleans, where he had been a special-ed teacher for eight years, it would be just after literacy hour and he'd be hustling kids to the bathroom before lunch. During lunch, he'd walk a few blocks to check on his mother-in-law, 81-year-old "Mere Mere," who has Alzheimer's disease and can forget to eat.

But that was 19 days, 25 pounds, two dogs ago. Another Todd Larche ago, when he and wife Michele, a doctor, who is 8 1/2 months pregnant with their second child, a boy, were focused on hardwood floors and paint colors for the new baby's room.

And this new Todd Larche waits, always, for the next available operator to reroute the 38 years of his life. And his family's.

It's not as bad as it could be, Larche says. "I told Michele at the last minute to bring the birth certificates, so she brought Kristen's birth certificate, shot records, our marriage certificate and our birth certificates." Unlike many evacuees who don't have a single sheet of paper, he doesn't have to prove who they are. He just has to sit through numbing tedium, take directions from electronic people. And try not to think about how very much he's lost.

No, better to keep busy, waiting. This is his life now and there's nothing for it.

On Thursday morning, he's trying to redirect the Social Security check for his 76-year-old father, John. It took a week of calling to get all of his father's old information. Last week, Larche opened new bank accounts for everyone. And John Larche wants his $700 a month to help with living expenses (he gets another couple hundred in pension). Larche hasn't even started working on Mere Mere's accounts.

He finally tries Social Security Online because he has already left five messages in two days. He scrolls. Clicks. Enters his dad's Social Security number. The computer wants a password. He creates a temporary one and the computer tells him he'll be getting the password.

In 15 days.

The family of five has maybe a month's worth of money. Larche has one more paycheck coming. His wife was in private practice and all of her records washed away.

Larche takes another tack. He calls his sister, who evacuated to Atlanta; she had been helping with her dad's accounts. She has an 800 number that puts Larche through to a real person, who asks for John and changes his direct deposit on the spot.

Larche smiles wide. "Whew, I'm glad I got that done," he says triumphantly.

Now there's just the money in John Larche's New Orleans bank account and his pension from Greyhound and Mere Mere's pension from the New Orleans Parish School Board, where she was a cafeteria manager for 35 years, to transfer. Another day.

This afternoon, there's an appointment with the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. They've fielded 400 calls since Labor Day. So far, they're giving out $15 per person per day Target Cards and paying short-term motel bills. They are placing some families in longer-term housing for up to 90 days. They gave Todd and Michele a $240 gift card to Giant, and they have cards for John Larche and Mere Mere. But first there are forms.

Sitting at the desk as their case manager, Iris Acevedo, explains the paperwork. Mere Mere pulls her thrift-store blazer tighter around her shoulders. She signs forms as Todd Larche rubs her back.

"I just wonder if my house is still standing," she says, looking small.

He rubs her back in tiny circles and tries to be optimistic. "Your house is all right, Mere Mere, and if it's not you'll rebuild it again."

"Not at my age," the old woman says, crying softly, shaking her head. "I don't think I will."

He continues to rub her back as she continues to sign forms. There's nothing else for it.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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