By Jen Gongaware
Wearing a navy blue Cal Poly t-shirt and beige O’Neil baseball cap, communications senior Matthew Larkin emerged from the administration building with a bag full of diapers in each hand.
Many Cal Poly professors donated the diapers along with various items to Larkin and to other Hurricane Katrina survivors who transferred to Cal Poly this fall. Cal Poly admitted ten students this fall from colleges closed by Hurricane Katrina.
Larkin, a 21-year-old New Orleans native, attended the University of New Orleans for two and a half years. He expected to receive his bachelor’s degree three weeks ago from UNO, but now the degree will most likely be from Cal Poly.
And come much later.
“It just sucks to work so hard for something and come so far, but be set back because of something like this,” Larkin said. “I should have my degree in my hand and now it will take one and a half more years.”
Two days before Hurricane Katrina reached land, Larkin and his pregnant wife evacuated the city.
“This wasn’t a matter of if it was going to happen, but when it was going to happen,” Larkin said.
Growing up in Louisiana, Larkin had heard hurricane warnings before.
In the past, he would glance at the newscast just to get an idea of how bad it was and where it was going.
“When we saw it was a category five, it was not good news,” Larkin said. “It was like, let’s pack up and get the hell out of here.”
Larkin first packed two bags of clothes into the car, which he planned would last the weeklong venture to California for him and his wife. Next came sentimental items, “anything that really had a memory.” The rest of the room went to expensive items, like his laptop, and a briefcase containing his unofficial transcripts, birth certificates and social security cards.
The traffic-filled freeway leading out of New Orleans was closed to one lane in each direction and the wait to fill up on gas was nine hours, Larkin said. He spent his savings for college on their voyage out to California.
“It’s just sad because everything that’s familiar to you, the places you grew up are washed away,” Larkin said.
They traveled to Texas where they were able to call friends in New Orleans and get an update on the situation.
“I heard stories of the levies breaking, winds of over 130 mph and their houses being destroyed,” Larkin said.
Over the next couple of days he could not get in contact with his family or friends. When contact was made, he found his house was destroyed and lying in knee-high mud.
“When you go through something like this, you really bond with the people you’re with,” Larkin said. “My wife and I are closer than ever.”
After just reaching California, Larkin’s wife started having contractions on Interstate Highway 405 in Los Angeles. He rushed her to the UCLA Medical Center where the doctor instructed them to check into the hotel across the street and wait for further contractions.
Once the contractions started coming faster, they boarded a medical shuttle that took them across the street to have the baby. On the way, a driver cut off the shuttle, sending his wife’s arms flying and breaking her wrist. His wife went through the 54-hour delivery of their first son, Ryan Thomas, with a fresh cast on her arm.
“My friends keep telling me to just get it over with and write a novel,” Larkin said jokingly.
Back at the hotel, Larkin e-mailed a multitude of California universities about possible enrollment.
“Cal Poly just really stood out,” Larkin said. “I had always heard great things about it and my wife’s from Paso Robles.”
The Friday before classes began for fall quarter, Cal Poly’s admissions office called him multiple times at the hotel, asking for his Social Security number and other various information.
“On the 10th, she said ‘Congratulations on being accepted into Cal Poly’,” Larkin said. “My wife burst into tears because it was her dream to have me graduate from Cal Poly.”
Good things followed once Larkin and his wife arrived in San Luis Obispo County. They found a low-income apartment in Templeton and Larkin’s job as a retail store assistant manager was transferred to their Atascadero location.
“I was stressed thinking how I was gonna support my new family,” Larkin said. “But in a matter of five days, I had a healthy baby, got into Cal Poly and had my job transferred.”
Larkin admits there are things about California that he is still getting used to.
“When I went to the beach I was surprised to see actual waves, in New Orleans they’re like ripples,” Larkin said. “And there are so many hills here. New Orleans is so flat.”
Larkin has also found a great difference in the way Californians speak compared to people from the South.
“I’m still trying to get used to talking to people without accents,” Larkin said. “Everyone speaks Spanish instead of French as a second language.”
Bland food is Larkin’s biggest complaint about living in California.
When he found Bon Temps (French for Good Life) Cajun Food off Santa
Rosa Street, he said he was ecstatic.
“I finally found a Cajun restaurant that is great and authentic,” Larkin said. “I was so excited and trying to talk to the employees about my experience but my mouth was stuffed full of food.”
Cal Poly accepted Larkin as a visiting student for the fall and winter quarters, meaning he will have to reapply to Cal Poly for the following quarters.
“Hopefully, I will get to stay,” Larkin said. “I am going to try my hardest to graduate from Cal Poly.”