Some are calling it the biggest humanitarian crisis in the United States since the Great Depression, with more than one million people displaced, the death toll 1,037 and rising, as many as 400,000 jobs lost, and economic damage in the range of $200 billion. Hurricane Katrina assaulted the Gulf Coast with winds up to 140 miles per hour the morning of August 29, pushing water ahead in a tidal surge, lifting boats into buildings, obliterating community landmarks, and knocking out telephone lines and electrical power throughout southeastern Louisiana and two-thirds of Mississippi.
Early damage assessment teams in Biloxi, Mississippi, came back with the first depressing estimates that it would be easier to list what was still standing, rather than catalog what was lost. The storm wiped out schools and public library branches, and the rising waters threatened academic and special collections throughout the region.
Initially, New Orleans thought it had been spared the worst damage because the storm had not hit it directly—but that was before two major breaches occurred in the levee system August 30, allowing water from Lake Pontchartrain to rush into city streets. Survivors fled to the city’s convention center and the Superdome sports complex, where for the next five days at least 22,000 residents were left with no food, water, power, or protection.
Thousands of displaced people from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama sought refuge wherever they could find it—with family and friends; in civic centers, camp grounds, and churches; and in many cases far from the afflicted areas. Texas may have absorbed as many as 373,000 evacuees, homeland security officials announced September 14.
Library workers struggled in first weeks of September to assess the condition of their libraries and to locate their colleagues. Others juggled equipment, red tape, and budgets to provide information services to the hundreds of evacuees who needed e-mail and internet access. And still others wanted to help in any way they could.
This special American Libraries news coverage sums up what we have learned about the damage to collections, the role librarians have taken on as information centers for displaced people, and what library supporters can do to help in recovery efforts.
Landfall in Louisiana
Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana near Buras in Plaquemines Parish, then moved north across St. Bernard and eastern Orleans parishes before slamming into St. Tammany Parish at the Mississippi border. It destroyed as many as 15 library branches in five parishes—Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Tammany, and Jefferson—according to State Library Director Rebecca Hamilton, who was still busily assessing the status of the state’s library systems and staff September 20.
Preliminary reports indicate that at least two of the 12 New Orleans Public Library (NOPL) branches are unusable after suffering water and wind damage. The Martin Luther King Jr. branch was almost completely submerged in the floodwaters, and the Rosa Keller branch had substantial damage to the collections and the building. Three libraries in Plaquemines Parish still had water up to the roof, two St. Bernard buildings remained completely under water, and four of the 15 Jefferson Parish libraries were completely destroyed. The one-year-old Pontchartrain branch in Slidell, St. Tammany Parish, was blown down. “The stacks fell like dominoes,” said Children’s Services Coordinator Tanya DiMaggio.
Hamilton told AL that Washington Parish was still without power as of September 16. A large tree crushed the headquarters library, and another tree knocked a hole in a branch library. Hamilton said she could not immediately assess the exact condition of some libraries because access to a few parishes was still limited. Plaquemines Parish Library Director Janet Cantwell reported that the homes of 10 of her 12 library staff are either flooded or gone, and St. Tammany Parish Director Jan Butler said that five trees fell on her house in Covington.
Hamilton suspects it could take as long as 10 years to get some library systems back to full capacity. “We will recover and rebuild,” she promised. “We have a strong backbone with a lot of hard-working librarians. The funding isn’t grand and our libraries don’t have a lot of money, but they do a lot with what they have. They really know how to stretch a dollar.”
But Louisiana Library Association Executive Director Beverly Laughlin told AL that dollars will be scarce in months to come. “One third of the state’s industries are in the afflicted areas,” she said. “Most of our public libraries are funded by tax millages, property taxes that are paid mostly by businesses. If you don’t have businesses any more, the tax base is gone.”
Hurricanes are so common in Louisiana, Hamilton said, that “all of the libraries pretty much have a protocol of boarding up windows, covering computers with garbage bags, and things like that.” But it’s the camaraderie of the state’s librarians that may have gotten them through this devastating ordeal. Hamilton noted, “I think a lot of our library staff went to fellow librarians throughout the state, got their bearings, and went on to other places.” Several parishes immediately posted job openings on the state library’s website and discussion list.
“Despite what people saw about the little bit of looting and chaos that went on in New Orleans, this is not the standard for Louisiana,” Hamilton said, adding that “almost everyone I know who had power had somebody living with them. I have three people in my home now, including a friend from New Orleans who will ultimately live with me because it’s now sinking in that she can’t go back.”
“The saying is that people respond within the first 14 or 15 days of a crisis, but we still need help,” Hamilton said. “We haven’t been able to 100% assess what’s to be done in the low lying parishes to determine whether they need to move inland, rebuild, or set up a mobile library—these are all decisions to be made down the road. But as horrible as it has been, it’s been a 2,000% positive experience for me to see what Louisiana librarians do and what other librarians will do for us.”
New Orleans dries out
Because of the mandatory evacuation order after the levees broke, only a handful of NOPL staffers were able to get in to assess the collections prior to September 17 when the Central Business District reopened to business owners.
However, Archivist Wayne Everard and Assistant Archivist Irene Wainwright established that much of the main library was dry, including the New Orleans city archives in the basement. Wainwright’s message was posted on several discussion lists September 9: “The main library itself (across the plaza from city hall, about four blocks from the Superdome) came through almost unscathed. Several windows blew out in the area of our Technology Center causing quite a bit of damage there, but the damage is confined to that closed-in room. There is also evidence of very minimal roof leakage on the first floor—most of it missing the books. On the whole, however, the main library is in excellent shape.”
Wainwright said that Munters, a Stockholm-based restoration company, would be working to stabilize the climate inside the building once power is restored. “The fact that the archives have survived leaves us almost delirious with relief,” she added. The status of the NOPL branches was still uncertain as of September 22, although it appeared that as many as six had been severely damaged.
Ron Gauthier, manager of the Martin Luther King Jr. branch, told AL he made the mistake of riding out the storm at one of the city’s hotels. “After the wind blew out all the windows, they moved us all into the ballrooms, where we were stuck for 4-5 days without running water or electricity.” He said the hardest part was watching the water rise in the streets outside and having no way of knowing what was going on.
Eventually Gauthier was evacuated to Atlanta, where he set up makeshift storytimes with some other volunteers at Red Cross shelters. “Just seeing the kids there with shocked looks,” he said, “convinced me they needed the magic that storytime can bring.”
Jefferson Parish hunkers down
“An awful lot of destruction,” is how Jefferson Parish Library Director Lon Dickerson described the post Hurricane Katrina situation in Metairie, located immediately west of New Orleans. Dickerson and 14 of his staff members stayed (and most continued to be housed through mid September) at the East Bank Regional Library, where the system’s administrative offices, technical services, and automation departments are located.
Dickerson said he wasn’t the one who decided the staff should stay in the library; it was the parish government. “Most of the parish employees stayed and slept in their work locations,” he added. “All department directors, maintenance staff, and essential emergency people stayed behind. We were evacuated just before the hurricane and let back in the morning after.”
The staffers prepared living quarters in the automation area—the one place with a gas-powered generator that provided air conditioning and a television set that kept them informed of what was happening after the hurricane hit. “We jerry-rigged an electrical cord to two refrigerators in the staff lounge,” Dickerson told AL. “Cooking was done initially on a charcoal grill that a maintenance person brought in from his house. Some people preferred to sleep on the tile floor. I have an army-style cot. We brought benches in from the public area in the library for others.”
“The first couple of days, we took stuff from our home refrigerators,” he continued. “We had no water, electricity, or toilets, but the parish geared up and brought in people that could provide food and water.”
Between attempts to repair their own homes, this band of library workers also went around August 30 and September 1 to take an assessment of every branch, except for Grand Isle, which is on an island. Together they made some quick fixes, turned off power breakers, emptied staff refrigerators, and assisted area food distribution sites. At the Lakeshore branch in Metairie, they packed seemingly salvageable books into boxes and took them to the Old Metairie branch. Later they found the books were too wet to be kept.
Dickerson said everyone he knows got out and fared well. “My family headed out for Shreveport and finally found a room in Tyler, Texas,” he said. “Since then, they have gone to Michigan to live with my family. My grandkids are enrolled in school there. It was very emotional. It was hard, but I knew they were getting out of harm’s way and that was important, and that the parish would do the best they could to take care of us.”
The news was not so good for the library’s Assistant Property Manager Bobby Deffner, whose mother died a couple days after the hurricane. “She had been evacuated to Bobby’s house on the north shore” of Lake Pontchartrain, Dickerson told AL. “He didn’t find out about her death until he visited his house a couple of days afterwards. His family still hasn’t been able to make funeral arrangements.”
Dickerson has been director of the Jefferson Parish Library since October 2004. Before that, after a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, he worked in libraries in rural Minnesota; Olympia, Washington; Omaha, Nebraska; and Savannah, Georgia. “Nothing prepares you for this level of destruction, but I did have FEMA training while I was in Savannah,” Dickerson noted.
“We lost close to a quarter of a million books and other library resources, such as computers,” Dickerson said. “We’re going to rebuild. President Bush talked about the ‘second line.’ The mayor of New Orleans talked about building everything bigger and better. It provides us with an opportunity to position the library to be an even stronger instrument in helping this community recover.”
The Mississippi cities of Biloxi and Gulfport in Harrison County took the brunt of the hurricane as it moved inland. Susan Cassagne, director of the Natchez Adams Wilkinson Library Service and president of the Mississippi Library Association, told AL that the worst damage occurred in Hancock County, where two of the four libraries were destroyed and one gutted, and Harrison County, where three libraries are likely to be condemned.
Sharman Smith, director of the Mississippi Library Commission, said that even in Jackson—some 150 miles inland—”we had 90-to-100-mile-an-hour winds.” The commission’s new building, still under construction, “fared extremely well.” She noted that if a number of trees that had died during the construction process had not been cut down, the damage would have been more significant. “We had no leaks in the new building,” said Smith, and a two-story glass wall in the main reading room withstood the wind. “It’s rated to withstand 100-mile-an-hour wind and it did so. I hated to have to prove it that way, but it did what it was supposed to do.”
Smith declared that most staff from libraries in the coastal communities “no longer have homes. Their homes are either heavily damaged and will have to be taken down or have been destroyed.” However, she said that when Hancock County Library System Director Prima Plauché told her that two of her branch librarians had lost both their homes and their libraries, she admitted that “they were more upset about the library than they were the home. We know how seriously librarians take what they do.”
Plauché, who also lost her home to Katrina, moved with her family to a hotel in Jackson, where she used a laptop to help other temporary residents contact family and friends and apply for FEMA and insurance claims. Plauché reported that Linda McKay, the library’s financial officer, had a tent city on her property, where a Blackhawk helicopter landed to deliver food and water.
The National Guard set up camp at Hancock County’s Bay St. Louis Public Library—which Plauché said received two to three feet of water and heavy roof damage but no major structural damage—using the property as a staging area. A cat-loving guardsman was assigned to take care of the library cat, Ms. Weezie, who survived in the building. Bay St. Louis staffers managed to get the Horizon integrated library system back up September 18.
“People and government are in desperate need to have internet access, reference and referral services, and some sense of confidence in their local government to restore services,” said Plauché, who added that the county administration had also asked for temporary office space in the Bay St. Louis library for some of their services, and to open the Kiln Public Library for community use.
Harrison County Library System’s administrative offices were on the second floor of Gulfport Public Library, which sat right on the ocean. Smith reported that nothing is left on the ground floor other than the columns. Although all the second-floor windows were blown out, somehow the offices remained largely intact. The library’s business manager climbed through the rubble to retrieve her computer, which held the personnel records, then plugged it into a generator at her home and ran the system’s payroll two days after the hurricane.
Harrison County Library Director Robert Lipscomb’s 5-year-old grandson and his mother were washed out of their home and rescued amid floating debris. About 30 members of his staff have lost most of what they own, “but as far as I know they are all alive,” he told AL.
Staff at Biloxi Public Library went in “right on the heels of the storm,” walking through what Smith called “a foot of who-knows-what of muck and mud” to retrieve the library’s collection of old photographs and other local history materials. Smith said much of the collection was salvageable.
A group of 13 police officers tried to sit out the storm in Harrison County’s Pass Christian branch library, the Houston Chronicle reported August 31. However, when one of their cruisers smashed through the front door on a current of water letting a torrent into the building, they escaped by shooting 50 rounds of bullets through the back door and climbing to the roof, where they spent the next three hours in 130 mile-per-hour winds. The branch was completely destroyed.
More than three weeks after Katrina struck, libraries were still uncertain as to when they could resume normal operations. “It’s going to be months before we know the full extent of the damage,” said Cassagne. On September 13 she noted that there were “little communities of 2,000 or 3,000 people we aren’t even hearing from yet.” Smith predicted that some rural communities might not have electricity until November.
Smith said recovery in the state will take “a lot of money and a lot of time. Figuring we probably lost approximately 150,000 square feet of library space statewide, at $200 a square foot, we’re talking a lot of money. I’d say it’s going to take at least a couple of years. Some will come back sooner, but they’re going to have to have the money to do so.”
“It’s just been amazing, what’s going on down here,” Plauché told AL. The demand for services in the wake of the hurricane confirms “libraries as valuable resources for the community,” she observed. “Libraries give hope. They’re located where people can reach us conveniently.
Tidal surge in Alabama
Although it moved inland some miles to the west, Hurricane Katrina sent a surge of seawater into coastal areas of Alabama and Mobile Bay, and inflicted widespread wind damage and power outages.
Alabama Public Library Service Director Rebecca Mitchell told AL that the state’s heaviest reported library damage was in Mobile County where the Mose Hudson Tapia Public Library in Bayou La Batre was completely destroyed, and the Mobile Public Library system’s main library and Dauphin Island Parkway branch suffered extensive damage.
MPL’s main library was in the midst of a renovation project, Director Spencer Watts told AL, so the facility was empty when the storm arrived. Early on, the area received some six inches of rain that had let up by the time the winds came, “so that worked to our advantage,” Watts said.
However, the main library’s temporary home—a 25,000-square-foot exhibition hall in the civic center downtown—lost its entire roof. “That was a bigger problem because all of the roof drains were ripped out and all the water that was on the roof started draining down into the building. It’s going to be a much more difficult structure to fix—about $600,000,” Watts said. “We’ve had to move all 160,000 items as quickly as possible to safety. . . . Fortunately, we have a good hurricane preparation program, and all of our stacks were wrapped and we only lost a few hundred books from that collection.”
The Dauphin Island Parkway branch also had its roof blown out, and suffered massive water damage. “We probably lost $10,000-$15,000 worth of books there, but we’ve managed to transport all 40,000 items out to another site,” Watts said, adding that much of the shelving, furnishings, and equipment had water-absorption problems.
“We had a lot of destruction,” Watts noted, “but it wasn’t altogether devastating like it has been along the Mississippi coast and down in Bayou La Batre.” Still, he added, “it’s hard not to feel like you’re devastated when you’re standing in three inches of water trying to get your books out of a building where you can look up through the roof deck and see the sky above you, and also from time to time parts of the ceiling are still falling down.”
Although widespread damage throughout Mobile affected many staffers at home, librarians came in and worked through the poor conditions in the first days after the storm. By August 31, three branches were back open, and by mid-September all but the main’s temporary site and the Dauphin branch were up and running. The library has since found a small downtown storefront to replace the temporary home for the main library which should be available by early October, Watts said.
Watts stressed the need for libraries to be made a priority in the communication network as part of the emergency planning process. When MPL tried to set up its data line for the temporary storefront site, “We had to go through the Department of Homeland Security’s national communication service to get a telephone service priority number, and they refused to give us one because we were a library,” Watts said. “It was very infuriating to be told it was not a high priority,” he complained.
Mitchell and Watts praised the outpouring of support and offers of equipment and materials from their colleagues, both locally and from the nation. “Closer to the coast, folks are going to be living with aftereffects of this for months and even years to come, so the help people get from elsewhere will be critical to help them get back to where they need to be,” Watts said. And, he added, “just remember that when storms bring chaos—they roll up their sleeves and get to work.”
Academic libraries in the path
Many college and university library collections were still assessing damage in mid-September. Susan Tucker, curator of books and records at the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women at Tulane University in New Orleans, reported to the Society of Southwest Archivists September 15 that the center’s Vorhoff Library and Newcomb Archives had some flooding, but the bulk of the collection was untouched. Curator Bruce Raeburn indicated the Hogan Jazz Archive on campus was safe.
However, Tulane’s Government Documents Librarian Eric Wedig reported that some 90% of the documents collection in the lower level of the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library has been lost due to flooding. Tulane Dean of Libraries Lance Query said in the September 16 Chronicle of Higher Education that the “great unknown” was the fate of an off-site facility that houses a half-million books, part of the university’s collection of architectural materials, its art collection, and collections from the Amistad Research Center, an archive of research on African-American history. The university has closed down for the fall semester but plans to reopen in the spring.
University of New Orleans Library Director Sharon Mader visited the school’s Earl K. Long Library in mid-September and reported no water and no visible mold. The collections are on the third floor and were not at risk from flooding.
The Nunez Community College campus in Chalmette is under several feet of water. John Burger, executive director of the Association of Southeastern Research Libraries, reported that the first floor of the Dillard University library was underwater, and that Loyola University library was dry but threatened with mold. He had heard nothing from Xavier University or Southern University of New Orleans. The entire first floor of the Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans was flooded; it housed a significant collection of theological journals and rare books.
Burger said that Mississippi State University libraries came through unscathed and the University of Mississippi libraries suffered minor water damage. Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning reported September 13 that Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, the Hattiesburg and Gulfport campuses of William Carey College, and the four campuses of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College all suffered heavy damage.
The University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg resumed classes September 12. Collections in the Cook and McCain libraries sustained no significant damage, although the office belonging to Melanie J. Norton, director of the School of Library and Information Science, was destroyed when a window blew out. USM’s Gulf Coast Library in Long Beach and Gunter Library in Ocean Springs both took on floodwater, ruining portions of the collections.
Museums and archives at risk
As the waters rose in New Orleans, many librarians were concerned about the fate of the Historic New Orleans Collection, a facility that is a popular destination for attendees at ALA conferences. Luckily, the building remained high and dry like much of the French Quarter. Executive Director Priscilla Lawrence reported on the collection’s website that staff members were able to enter the Quarter with a state police escort and found the library safe. Much of the material had been moved to “a generous and accommodating institution in another part of the state,” she said, adding that she hoped to be back in operation when services were restored.
The Munters restoration company pumped about six inches of water out of the main office of the New Orleans Notarial Archives, located in the basement of the Civil District Courts building, on September 8. Many of the city’s historic real-estate documents dating back to 1699 are housed here and at a nearby research center on the third floor of a building on Poydras Street, where Munters began setting up air conditioning four days later. Curator Ann Wakefield notified the Society of Southwest Archivists, “Of the approximately 50,000 volumes that were located in the basement, about 2,000 were wet. The wet volumes are in freezer trailers to be sent to a freeze-dry chamber in Chicago for cleaning and drying.”
Six security and maintenance employees of the New Orleans Museum of Art decided to ride out the hurricane in the museum, Assistant Director Steven Maklansky reported to the American Association of Museums. When FEMA officials asked them to vacate the premises they refused, insisting they had to secure the art treasures. However, they relented three days after the storm when armed guards from IGA, a New York-based company, arrived to secure the building. The art inside and outside the museum is safe, except for a 45-foot-high metal sculpture by Kenneth Snelson called “Virlane Towers,” which was “reduced to a twisted mess in the lagoon,” AAM reported.
Exhibits and collections at the National D-Day Museum on Magazine Street survived the storm, although some people broke into the gift and coffee shops, according to the September 17 Shreveport Times.
In Biloxi, the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library lost everything on the first floor except for a statue of the Confederate leader and former U.S. senator. David Preziosi, executive director of the Mississippi Heritage Trust, told AL: “The first floor of the library was the presidential museum and the second floor was the library portion where the Davis papers and other materials are located. Everything on the second floor made it through the storm; however, the items from the museum are lost. Several archaeologists will be going down there to do a field reconnaissance mission to try and find any remaining artifacts that may be on the site somewhere.” Although Davis’s home, historic Beauvoir house adjacent to the library, suffered massive storm damage, state officials believe it can be salvaged, the Biloxi Sun Herald reported September 14.
Schools in a state of shock
School libraries were equally devastated by the storm. Preliminary data collected by the Mississippi Department of Education indicated the hurricane affected 271 schools in 44 districts, representing 160,000 students. Hancock County’s Pearlington branch, a joint school-public library that opened in 1999—the first such venture in the state—was destroyed. In Alabama, most of the damage occurred to schools in the Mobile County School System.
In Louisiana, more than 186,000 public and private school students have been displaced. According to a September 9 state department of education report, all 15 schools were underwater in suburban St. Bernard Parish and had suffered extensive damage. In Plaquemines Parish, six out of nine schools were completely flooded.
At a September 16 press conference at a Houston middle school, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced that the federal government would request $2.6 billion from Congress to pay 90% of the average cost of educating each Katrina student for one year, whether publicly or privately, up to a ceiling of $7,500 apiece, the September 17 Houston Chronicle reported.
But Spellings’s federal aid package does not appear to include salaries for displaced teachers, Reuters reported September 17. Louisiana Superintendent of Education Cecil J. Picard is asking the feds for an additional $2.4 billion to pay salaries and benefits for 25,700 displaced teachers, media specialists, and other workers. If that doesn’t come through, on September 21 New Orleans teachers would get their last paycheck until school reopens, according to William Roberti of Alvarez and Marshal, a restructuring firm that has been working with the city’s schools. “The cash situation is dire,” he said in the September 15 Beauregard Daily News.
Churches and synagogues
St. Peter’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Gulfport, Mississippi, lost its 2,000-book theological library, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported September 10. With at least 20% of Catholic churches on the Gulf Coast destroyed, the Rev. Elvin Sunds of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson fears that at least a century of sacramental records have been lost. The records keep track of every baptism and marriage performed in each church and “date back as far as parishes have existed,” Sunds said. In Catholic New Orleans, churches were instructed to remove their records before the hurricane hit, said Lee Leumas, archivist for the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge. But with such short notice, Leumas isn’t sure how many churches heeded the advice.
In Waveland, Mississippi, the United Methodist-affiliated educational and retreat center Gulfside Assembly was totally destroyed. Of some 80 Methodist churches in the state’s six southernmost counties, five have been confirmed destroyed. The Mississippi Baptist Convention Board estimates at least 100 of its churches were destroyed or significantly damaged.
Just outside New Orleans, members of the historic Gates of Prayer synagogue in Metairie moved their five Torah scrolls—some more than 200 years old—to the fifth floor of an office building. At New Orleans’ Touro Synagogue, the oldest Jewish house of worship outside the 13 colonies, Rabbi Andrew Busch believes the Torah scrolls are intact.
Library service to evacuees
Thousands of displaced persons—those who fled the hurricane before it hit and those who were evacuated afterwards—found refuge in centers and homes in nearly all 50 states. For many of them, the local library was the only place they could go to fill out FEMA disaster-assistance applications, to look for missing family and friends, to send out e-mails letting people know they were all right, and to look at aerial photos on the internet.
Lafayette (La.) Public Library Director Sona Dombourian told AL that she started setting up an information center for evacuees in the meeting room as early as August 31 and it has been “nonstop busy” ever since. “We estimate at least 500 people daily at the main library and 100 people per day at the branches are using the services we set up,” she said, “including internet access, e-mail, telephone and fax service, local information, and disaster-related information.”
Dombourian said her library lucked out by having received, three weeks before the hurricane, a batch of computers from a Gates Library Foundation supplemental grant “to replace the old 1998 machines.” They were scheduled to go to the branches, but she kept them for use in the main library’s information center. “The problem we ran into was that the FEMA application would only work on a computer running Internet Explorer 6.0,” she said. “Our older machines were incapable of handling the latest browser.”
LPL waived its customary $25 fee for a temporary library card. “We didn’t want to add to the financial burden, since a lot of these people left with the clothes on their backs,” Dombourian said. By September 15, they had issued 371 temporary cards. The Calcasieu Parish Public Library System in Lake Charles also set up a computer lab for evacuees in its Carnegie Memorial Library. Loretta Gharst, associate librarian for collection and computing services, said, “For the first few days after the hurricane it was not uncommon to see people staring at the computer screen with tears rolling down their faces. We kept boxes of Kleenex near the computers.”
Gharst described the evacuees she saw: “They were like us. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic; some well-off, some not. They were concerned about their families, their homes, their futures. They came to the library to get in formation because they couldn’t get it anywhere else…. They wanted to know about finding employment, housing, and registering children for school. But most of all they wanted to go home and start pulling their lives and businesses back together.”
Mary Stein, assistant library director at the East Baton Rouge Parish Library, told AL that her staff tried to “keep the positive stories going to keep morale up. When you connect someone with his mother and he didn’t know whether she was dead or alive, that’s important. We’ve had a lot of Hallmark moments.”
Academic libraries pitched in too. Louisiana State University at Alexandria asked evacuees to come in to the library after 1 p.m., when fewer students were on hand. Director of Library Services Jules Tate told AL, “We quickly realized that evacuees had lots of time on their hands and not much to do. So we loaded a couple of book trucks with books and magazines that had been waiting for the annual Friends sale and rolled the trucks around the shelters for people to take anything they might like to read.”
With hundreds of thousands of evacuees streaming into the state, Texas libraries have been offering similar services. Houston Public Library set up a makeshift branch for evacuees living at the George R. Brown Convention Center shelter. The shelter library has provided free books, storytimes, 28 computers with internet access, and toys and games for children. It is stocked with some 10,000 donated books for both children and adults.
Houston’s suburban Harris County Public Library System has also been swamped with evacuee users. E-branch Librarian Grace Lillevig posted on the PubLib discussion list: “One branch reported that 75% of its computer users were evacuees. . . . A great story that came out of all of this is at one of our branches, where a young adult evacuee has started volunteering and shelving books. I am sure that this is but one of a great many stories to come.”