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A Child's Paradise, Lost

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 28, 2005

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

When Michele Larche told her 5-year-old that her daddy was going back to New Orleans to check on the house, Kristen had just one urgent question.

"Is Daddy going to be dead from the flood?"

Kristen Larche was always an even-tempered child -- quick to laugh and rarely upset. She had Mommy and Daddy and "Hood Rat," the frail, skinny gerbil the family adopted and nursed back to health. She had old friends and new uniforms for the start of kindergarten.

"I worry that when she does get back, she's not going to recognize anything," Michele frets. "She's going to look for her things and they're not going to be there."

New Orleans was all she knew, and now everything she knew has changed.

In the video her daddy shot the day they evacuated, Kristen is grinning. "Welcome to my room," she says, posing for the camera. We're leaving "because Hurricane Dennis is going to blow us away." She throws her arms open wide for added drama.

"Uh-uh, baby, this is Hurricane Katrina ," Todd Larche corrects his daughter off-camera.

Okay, Katrina, she nods.

When you're 5 and you've already been through five hurricanes, they tangle in your mind.

Kristen Larche is a storm child. Like her parents and grandparents, who've spent all their days in hurricane alley, the names of storms are part of the topography of her life. Georges, Ivan, Lily, Cindy, Dennis, Audrey. Betsy and Camille. The grown folks recall the names and keep alive the stories.

But Katrina, and now Rita, will likely have a special place all their own.

Right after New Orleans was devastated, whenever Mommy would obsessively watch the cable news, Kristen would jump between her and the television. "I would block it like this," she says, demonstrating, "so my mommy won't cries. And she cries and cries and gives me a headache."

Kristen saw a picture of their house on her aunt's computer in Silver Spring that a family friend had e-mailed. All that was lush green outside is gone, but the camera didn't capture what may have happened inside the house. Still, Kristen was thrilled. "Mommy, Mommy, our house didn't get knocked down!"

But what if the inside has been destroyed, Michele worries.

Kristen likes staying with Michele's sister but says she misses her room, where she had "stars and butterflies and moon" hanging from her ceiling. And her animals. "I want to go home to see my doggies," Kristen says. "I had a hamster."

A gerbil, Michele corrects.

"A gerbil, and a hermit crab. Hermit crab, I miss you!"

Her parents haven't told her that her pets are gone. They don't talk in front of her about their fears about the house, their sadness about the animals.

But she knows things are wrong. She used to be a child who rarely cried. That's changing. The other day, as kids will do, she started to put a remote control into a cup of water. When Michele stopped her, "oh, she cried," Todd says.

"Oh, my poor baby," he worries aloud. She just seems so much more fragile than she used to be. The sense of loss and insecurity can be especially hard on child evacuees, experts say. It makes them feel vulnerable and insecure.

Before they left New Orleans, the family walked the downtown streets. "I told her to pay attention," Todd says, it's part of history.

"The water in the street, I felt scared it was going to wipe me up," Kristen says. "I knew about that water, that it's dangerous and scary. . . . The scariest part was that it was going to come into my house."

Now she sees that her house is standing. She's made a friend, Emily, in her new school, but she doesn't understand why she can't go home. Her parents comfort her; they say the water's going down, baby , and keep her focused on her new little brother coming in mid-October, whom she's going to have to help take care of. And that seems to be working for the Larches today, except for the occasional questions about storm water and death.

They'll worry about tomorrow when it comes.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company