An Elusive Foundation in Shifting Sands
Saturday, October 22, 2005
Thirteenth in a series chronicling the Larches of New Orleans as they rebuild their lives in the Washington area.
In the living room of her sister's Silver Spring home, near a wall of bibs and blankets, Michele Larche cradles her newborn son and for the thousandth time since Hurricane Katrina tries to figure out what's next.
She and husband Todd want to put a roof -- hopefully (hopefully!) a New Orleans roof -- over their heads and settle their elderly parents with them or nearby. They want to get back to work; he's a special-ed teacher, she's a doctor. They want stability for themselves, their baby son and 5-year-old daughter. They want answers.
But in the month and a half since they were forced to flee their home, it's as if all the ground beneath them is still wet and shifting. And nobody can tell them when or if it will dry. In the absence of a hard surface upon which to rebuild their lives, the Larches can make only half-plans. And even they dissolve.
"It's frustrating," says Michele. "Every time I think this is my plan -- I'm going to go back; I'm going to gut the house and rebuild -- somebody comes and tells me there are toxins or metals in the ground. They say the whole area will have to be bulldozed, or condemned." The latest word is that the floodwaters were much less toxic than first reported, but the latest word seems ever-changing.
So she combs the Internet nearly five hours a day -- news sites, e-mails and message boards -- searching for official word: Will her neighborhood be rebuilt? What's the timetable? What assistance can homeowners expect?
They lived in New Orleans East, among the city's biggest residential areas. It borders the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward and is populated by working- and middle-class black families that have been around for generations.
City officials have been focused on bringing back people into the least-damaged areas: the French Quarter, the Garden District and Uptown. Mayor Ray Nagin has talked about rebuilding the downtown business district and the tourist economy to bring back jobs. But there's been little word about the residential neighborhoods out East.
"Cost-wise, if they are talking about leveling New Orleans East, what are we going to do?" says Todd. The uptown houses are too pricey.
The Larches got a check from their flood insurance this week. Nearly $100,000, which seems substantial except when Michele deducts $45,000 to pay off her old mortgage. Except when you think about the cost of rebuilding or relocating and filling a new house with chairs and sheets and dishes. Now they are waiting for an appointment to meet an adjuster. In New Orleans. Only after that will they find out how much they'll get from their homeowner's insurance. Maybe enough to start over, maybe nothing at all if they can't prove the house sustained wind damage.
"I got a damn tree on my house; that's wind damage," says Todd. "There's a hole in the roof."
"You didn't tell me that," says Michele, surprised. "You just said, 'It's gone, it's gone.' That's not specific enough."
The Larches lightly spar, then start talking in different directions. Michele -- who worries Todd still hasn't told her everything, who complains that her husband is prone to tangents and flights of fancy -- talks about the mortgage people who want them to call every month to say whether they can pay on the house note yet. She says she regrets that she never did increase her flood coverage even though she knew $100,000 could never rebuy her life. She speculates that maybe they can clean up the mold in her mother's New Orleans East house and live there temporarily -- if only her mother's insurance adjuster would call, if only the city would get the power going, if only somebody would tell them it's safe to stay.
Speaking at the same time as his wife, Todd grows dreamy. "We're going to buy a house near City Park so Kristen can go to the park and feed the ducks if she wants. Somewhere near Metairie so we can go to the malls. We're going to be centralized, close to the interstates so we can go to Florida," he muses.
"We're going to find a nice neighborhood so my daddy can pick up his aluminum cans," to cash in for pocket change, Todd continues. And suddenly the couple burst into laughter that briefly startles their newborn son. Because there are no aluminum cans to be had in the tidy City Park section of New Orleans.
Then Michele is quiet as Todd talks. "We're the ones that are wanting to come back," he says. "We did Mardi Gras long before we had kids. We do Jazzfest, we do Cafe du Monde. Sometimes we just want to take a ride through the French Quarter with the windows down and something easy on the radio. Michele just wants to hear the noise of Bourbon Street."
As their son sleeps, the Larches grow quiet, caught in a spell of memory and fantasy. Waiting for news.
To see previous articles in this series, go tohttp:/