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Romance springs up in the wake of disaster—could it be love?

NEW ORLEANS—They met the Tuesday after Katrina, when John Clarke waded down to Fritzel's, a bar on Bourbon Street. He'd heard there were working pay phones around there, and he needed a drink.

Heidi Ochs was bartending. Business was bad. The city was hell. They got to talking. She had an apartment on Lee Circle but no food or water; he had those things in a ruined house over on the Esplanade.

The next day he waded down again, to see her. The bar was empty this time. They talked about damage. They told each other macabre jokes. They learned about each other.

Him: 30, a physical therapist, over from Ireland in 1993, subject to frequent and embarrassing inquiries from his Irish mother as to whether he has met someone yet. Her: 31, studying jazz at Delgado Community College, over from Arizona in 1998, hadn't talked to her mother in the 11 years before the storm.

It got late. She worried about him wading home in the dark. She didn't know why. "Do you want to stay at my place?" she asked. He did.

They took care of each other for the next weeks. They needed each other because there was no one else, and maybe it was just that, for a time.

But they spent nights in a tent outside her balcony. He explained to her the fascinating intricacies of the game of rugby. She showed him the fingering on her clarinet and how to shape his lips and push air against the reed to make sound. When they couldn't stand the dirt any longer, they stripped and bathed in the water outside.

This was stranger than it was romantic, as if the storm had catapulted them over the niceties and doubts of the courtship ritual. They found themselves engaging in domestic discussions about food and supplies and the condition of their shelter.

"It's as if everything's in reverse," Ochs said.

During the days, they taped garbage bags around their legs and foraged for food and water. They ate military "meals ready to eat," but the night the tap water started running again for showers and toilet flushing, they laid a tablecloth over a piano bench and celebrated with tuna curry.

When they became feverish and nauseated, Clarke, who has spent some time working in hospitals, prescribed a course of antibiotics from an already looted pharmacy.

"Maybe we were just liking each other because we were sticking together—I thought about that, a lot," he said. "It's a horrible time in life. But I feel pretty damn happy. I like being with her."

Was it the shy way she lowers her head to laugh? Or the time he lost his cell phone while wading chest-deep into scum to rescue an old lady from her car?

"I don't want to call it love," Ochs said. "I get scared with that word. I don't want to fall in love. But I guess I will."

"It's the closest I've ever come," Clarke said. "I'm hoping it is."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KATRINA-LOVE

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