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When Lightning Strikes Twice

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 26, 2005

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

It's past noon but Michele Larche is still wearing the blue pajamas she bought with her Red Cross debit card, and folding baby clothes donated by strangers. She pauses to hold up an outfit, trying to figure out what might fit her baby -- a boy due mid-October. Just back from Sunday Mass, her husband, Todd, looks on. Their conversation veers, taking them from the Silver Spring living room of Michele's sister and brother in-law, where Hurricane Katrina chased their family of five 3 1/2 weeks ago, to Louisiana and Texas, where Hurricane Rita got after the rest of their folks Saturday.

Michele's brother Michael, who lived 10 minutes from the Larches in New Orleans, had fled to Beaumont, Tex., and on Friday had to run for the second time. Saturday she talked to her nephew as they were waiting to check into a Best Western outside San Antonio.

Todd's brother Johnny, who lives in Lake Charles, La., about 200 miles west of New Orleans, came through Katrina unscathed. Friday, he made his family evacuate for Rita, but he stayed behind. "Ride it out or die" -- some New Orleans folks think like that, Todd says. Johnny is cut from that cloth. Plus, he's got high blood pressure and hypertension and he weighs nearly 400 pounds.

"What's going on with New Orleans people?" says Michele. "My brother had just gotten an apartment in Beaumont. They hadn't even moved in yet. It's almost like we're being punished for something."

"It's not like that," says Todd. "Look what God put the Israelities through and that's his chosen people."

"Johnny was the only person who wasn't really affected and now look what he's going through," says Michele.

"Man, to show you how close it was, on TV they showed this big uprooted tree that split a house in half. That was directly across his street," Todd says.

Michele pauses, holding up a pair of newborn booties. Isn't this nice?

Oh, that's real nice. W ho bought that?

Michele resumes folding. "It's too much, it's just too much."

"This morning at homily, the priest had this real deep, deliberate voice," says Todd. "He was talking about the gospel and parables. The priest brought it all down to a neighbor in need, and before you know it, he brought the Gulf Coast into it."

"Remember last year when Florida was getting battered by storms?" asks Michele.

"We were feeling so bad," Todd says. Their 5-year-old daughter, Kristen, "is such a beach baby, she calls it 'my Florida,' she can't stand for anything to happen to Florida."

"I was saying, 'What's taking them so long to rebuild?' " says Michele. "Now the storms are coming our way."

"But still, there's nothing like being told you can't go home," Michele says."It's not like your house burns down and you're devastated, then you pull out the insurance and start to try to rebuilding," says Todd.

"Everybody you know lost their house, so you can't even stay with somebody," says Michele.

"I'm feeling so bad about all the people who don't have any loyalty for New Orleans. Who are just giving up on my city," says Todd. "Michele moved away for three months, but we always come back."

"He always says a prayer whenever we come back from out of town," says Michele. "He says thank God we made it back to New Orleans."

The Larches grow quiet, sinking into their own thoughts. Michele continues sorting baby clothes into piles.

Saturday, Todd was on the phone with his brother Johnny for nearly three hours as Hurricane Rita passed.

They talked about New Orleans, and laughed; they talked about their brother Kirk who died in a motorcycle accident 14 months after their mother's suicide and cried. They held on through the phone, through the storm, until the worst of it passed.

Sunday morning, Todd tried to reach Johnny, but the phone lines were jammed.

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