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.
Todd's chest is heaving as he pulls up to his house. The three-bedroom rancher looks structurally sound, but the front door won't open. He peers into a broken window.
Oh my God, he says quietly. Oh my God.
The devastation inside is worse than anything he imagined.
He goes around back and pulls hard to open the gate. He climbs over fallen trees and moves dead branches away from his face. He gets to a clearing in the back yard and suddenly stops.
"Oh," he moans. "There's my dog."
His year-old Rottweiler, Simba, is wedged between the side of the house and the deck. The front of his body is splayed across the collapsed wooden planks while the rest of him disappears underneath them. His eyes are open and his teeth are bared. Thick black pieces of fur and flesh are plastered to the brick, and the putrid smell of decay fills the yard.
Todd quietly sobs, taking in deep gulps of air. "That poor dog," he cries.
His other dog is nowhere to be found.
He crosses the deck and tries the back door. He kicks at it, but the door doesn't give. He opens his bedroom window, tears down the blinds and climbs inside.
"No, man, wait!" Collins yells at him, still climbing through the dead trees. "Don't go in there like that." He urges Todd to put on his boots, gloves and surgical mask.
"It's all right," Todd calls out defiantly. "It's still my house!"
Inside, Todd stands still, looking around and practically chanting to himself. "It's gone, it's gone, my house is gone."
His dressers are overturned and broken. A slimy boxspring has been knocked out of the frame of his four-poster-bed. Lamps, pictures and shoes litter the floor like pieces of a puzzle. Throughout the house, the floor is slick with mud and feces, and the stench triggers a gag reflex. An 81/2-foot-high waterline rings the 10-foot walls. The patches of mold are so thick it looks like the walls have been papered with colonies of moths.
"My God, I didn't expect this," Todd says.
He starts working frantically, trying to open dresser drawers and digging through debris with his bare hands. He unearths a watch and a dirty gold cross. He finds the canister with his first dogs' cremated ashes. Stuffed butterflies and stars still hang from the ceiling in his daughter's room, and he steps on her upended bed to reach a waterlogged doll.
He clears a path to the front door and walks silently back to the truck to put on his protective gear. He goes back into the house and removes his three pistols. He carries out waterlogged family pictures and parts of his Coke bottle and beer memorabilia collection. His friends just look on quietly.
"After a day or two, when he realizes he's lost everything, the depression kicks in," says Mark. He went through the same thing when he first returned to his own house two weeks ago.
"It's going to hit him hard tomorrow and the next day," says Andre.
The afternoon sun beats down on his head and Todd continues his silent, sweating work. Every so often a slight putrid breeze stirs the air. It's the smell of all his hope for the trip.