Malibu native escapes hurricane

Terry Boyd (left), a custodian at Webster Elementary School, speaks to Malibu Presbyterian Church elder Kevin Iga. Boyd is relocating 11 family members from New Orleans to Los Angeles. Webster parents and Malibu Presbyterian parishioners pitched in to help Boyd and his family pay for apartment and living expenses. Hans Laetz / TMT

Former Malibu resident Sydney Latta had just started school at Loyola University in New Orleans, then the hurricane hit.

By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times

It took just five days for Malibu native Sydney Latta’s world to end-and then begin again.

Latta, 18, was walking back from soccer practice at her university campus when she first heard the news that Hurricane Katrina might visit her new hometown, New Orleans.

“We were just leaving soccer practice and were heading to the dorm when we heard this little thing about a hurricane,” the 2005 Oaks Christian High School graduate said.

Just five days later, Latta found herself walking up John Tyler Drive in her old hometown, Malibu. And in little more than half a day, Latta had gone from being a luggage-less refugee at Los Angeles International Airport, to a newly admitted walk-in member of the freshman class at Pepperdine University.

On the Saturday before Hurricane Katrina’s fury hit New Orleans, Latta and her friends decided to wait it out. But she and her dorm mate from Albuquerque made a run for it Sunday, with Katrina a day away.

“It was scary, they made us drive up the wrong side of the freeway to Baton Rouge,” Latta recalled.

From there, Sydney and Kelli Good waited with thousands for any flight out. The pair eventually made it to Dallas and then New Mexico, and waited at Good’s house to see what would happen.

And what happened was history in a large sense, and tragedy in a small sense for Latta.

“I got out with my PC and an overnight bag,” she said. “I lost everything.”

Frantic phone messages from hopeful transfer students covered the desk of Pepperdine Seaver College Dean David Baird when Latta and her mother, Shari, walked in the door Wednesday morning, she said.

Five major universities were destroyed in New Orleans, including Loyola University, the school where Latta had just arrived to begin her freshman year. Nationwide, at least 25,000 college students are desperate to gain emergency admittance at a university, according to some estimates.

“And all the universities are full, and just starting their new semesters,” said Shari Latta.

“I was wanting to ask Loyola what they were going to do for the kids, all the kids,” she said. “But the university has its own problems too. They lost their families, they lost their jobs, they lost their university.”

Pepperdine’s undergraduate program expects to squeeze in at least 10 refugee students, and the law school may take a handful of legal students, a spokesman said. As it did for Latta, Pepperdine will waive tuition and fees at Pepperdine for the students if they continue to pay tuition to their home school.

The Lattas had a reunion at dawn last week on Thursday at LAX, and drove next door to Loyola Marymount to see if Sydney could be admitted there.

“They just kind of stared at us and handed us a freshman admission form,” mom Shari said.

Latta had better luck at Pepperdine, where the impact of the disaster had sunk in, as it had for her.

“I don’t know if I’ll go back to Loyola,” Latta said. “I’d love to go back to help with the relief effort. But the school itself, well …” Latta added, standing in the Malibu sun, her voice trailing off.