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Two orphans of the storm return to Tulane with fond farewells to 'gracious,' 'amazing' Cornell

John and Maggie Joyce

Kevin Stearns/University Photography
John and Maggie Joyce

John Joyce thought he could ride out hurricane Katrina. So when the city was evacuated, the Tulane University musicologist stayed put for two days.

With the power out and his neighborhood near the Tulane campus largely unscathed, Joyce, a New Orleans native, presumed that the hurricane hadn't lived up to its billing - until armed National Guard troops arrived at his door to say waters from Lake Pontchartrain had breached the levies. Joyce and his three cats had to leave.

After 15 hours on traffic-choked roads, he made his way to a farm in rural Oberlin, La., owned by a colleague's parents.

As he planned his return to Tulane after a semester as a visiting professor at Cornell, Joyce reflected on his escape from New Orleans as the flood waters closed in. He will be returning to Tulane with his daughter, Maggie, one of about 200 Gulf Coast students, mostly from Tulane, who spent the semester at Cornell.

Update:

On Dec. 19 Maggie Joyce wrote from New Orleans: "I am glad to be home. I didn't realize how much I missed the city until I got back. New Orleans needs all the help it can get, and I feel it deserves that help. Tulane doesn't look so great physically, and I would love to help them out as well. I hope to contribute to the revival of the city and the university."

Joyce's New Orleans apartment sits on high ground. The slight elevation of neighborhoods built on the crescent, including the Garden District and the French Quarter, proved to be a salvation. Maggie Joyce, a Tulane architecture undergraduate, lived in a rented bungalow at a lower elevation, and her home was flooded to waist height. Several shades of mildew invaded her clothes, computer and family mementos.

"On Saturday I woke up and my roommate said, 'Guess what, a Category 5 hurricane's going to hit New Orleans, possibly,'" recalled Maggie. "At that stage they were asking people to evacuate. It wasn't mandatory yet. We've had threats of hurricanes my entire lifetime but never a mandatory evacuation. You just left, if you wanted to, but about half the city stayed."

Before dawn Sunday, Maggie and her boyfriend set off for Houston. They didn't know it, but the mayor had ordered the city evacuated the night before. Approaching Interstate 10 across eerily desolate streets, they joined the mother of all traffic jams with the only light from miles of red taillights. The normally five-hour trip to Houston took 12 hours, in part because of frequent stops for rationed gas. One pump ran dry in Maggie's hand.

After a week in Houston, Maggie got a call from a friend saying Cornell was taking Tulane architecture students. It all sounded too good to be true, she said. Maggie drove to Washington, D.C., to join several Tulane friends for the drive to Ithaca.

"When we got here, I was really skeptical," Maggie admitted. "I was like, come on. We haven't even applied to Cornell. Cornell is an Ivy League school. What on Earth would make them let just any kid in? But these were extreme circumstances. So we got in a big line at Day Hall. We got our pictures taken. We got our IDs. And then we were real Cornell students."

Meanwhile, her father was becoming stir crazy on the Oberlin farm. His cell phone didn't work for weeks. When it finally rang, he was staring at a cow. His daughter was on the line, urging him to join her at Cornell. John Joyce's thesis adviser, Howard Smither, emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who also has a Cornell Ph.D., had successfully persuaded the Cornell music department to find a place for John.

"My incentive was not just sanity in getting away from that chaos, but I had a publication deadline in November. All I needed was a little cubbyhole and a computer and a couple of programs," said John Joyce.

Several weeks after his daughter arrived on campus, Joyce moved into a Lincoln Hall office. He devoted himself to transcribing improvised New Orleans jazz recorded in the 1920s into musical notation. "I've been able to get a ferocious amount of work done. It worked out terrifically."

Coming to Cornell also gave him solace: "To get here and get an ID card instilled such stabilization … When they give you that card, it's worth its weight in gold, psychologically. Because you don't realize you're in a state of sublimated shock all this time. To go through this, it really is horrible. As time passes, you realize what you've been through."

John Joyce was astounded when Cornell broached the idea of remuneration, an offer he did not accept because tenured professors were kept on Tulane's payroll. Tulane had to lay off about two-thirds of its administrative staff and has since laid off more than 200 faculty and closed several programs. "This experience has reaffirmed my belief in the idea of a community of scholars," Joyce said. "Cornell didn't have to do this for me. Everyone has been more than gracious."

For her part, Maggie Joyce has become intrigued by landscape architecture and the possibilities of eco-design and green approaches to development. "Every professor I've had here is amazing," she said. "I've been ridiculously impressed by them. They've just been out-of-the-ballpark good."

As they prepare to leave Ithaca and return to Tulane, the Joyces consider their complicated relationship with New Orleans. "It's going to be a shock, as my mother says," Maggie noted. "She's there right now. She said, 'Just don't expect what you left, because it's not there.' I love New Orleans, but I'm not going to live there after school. The city was in shambles long before Katrina. Who knows what living there now will be like?"

In the 1970s the French film director Louis Malle came to town to shoot "Pretty Baby" and met with Joyce to talk about jazz. Malle made an observation about New Orleanians that John Joyce believes has always held true and holds the key to the city's future: "These people improvise their lives."

George Lowery is projects manager for the Office of Humanities and Social Sciences Communications.

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