Part 7

Behind the Door

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 1, 2005

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

Exactly one month after Hurricane Katrina chased him out of New Orleans, Todd Larche is driving back.

He has an ax and a box cutter and gallons of water in his pickup. He has bleach and rubber gloves. He doesn't know whether he'll be allowed back in, but he's packed everything he can think of to hedge his bets against what he might find.

It's over 20 hours and 1,100 miles from his in-laws' Silver Spring home, where he and his family of five have taken refuge, to his own home in the Ninth Ward.

His wife, Michele, has given him a list of things to get from the house. At the top: "Anything," underlined twice. "Any dolls," for Kristen, "any pictures, even if half-ruined." Todd wants his yellow T-shirt stained with Kristen's newborn footprints.

He drinks coffee and chain smokes cigarettes mile after mile. He sings to David Bowie in Southern Maryland. Earth, Wind & Fire gets him through Virginia. He reminisces about the place he was born. Maybe it's just a Southern thing, he says, but "you don't just say goodbye to a place. It sticks with you."

In North Carolina, torrential rains cut visibility. A car hydroplanes out of control in front of his truck.

In Atlanta, he picks up his neighbor, Larry Collins Sr., a postal clerk who evacuated, too. The two embrace warmly. Then it's back on the road.

The closer to New Orleans they get, the more anxiety builds. Todd worries about his sister-in-law's father, sick in Port Arthur. He worries he'll open his door and find his dogs dead. He worries because Michele, nine months pregnant, is frustrated she couldn't make the trip. He turns a palm up and prays . . . strength for what we find, Lord.

"Man, I just hope I have good news to bring back to these people," he says. "Man, man, man."

At nearly 4 in the morning outside Baton Rouge, he hooks up with two other evacuated neighbors, brothers Andre and Mark LeBeau, at one of their relatives' house. He finally lays his head down.

He's up with the first light. Andre, who has already been back, shows pictures of his house, and as Todd gets back on the road, he steels himself for what he's about to see.

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