Libraries Rebound in the Wake of Hurricane Ida

Buildings, collections damaged across multiple states

October 5, 2021

Post–Hurricane Ida ceiling damage in the Ponchatoula branch of Louisiana’s Tangipahoa Parish Library (Photo: Courtesy of Tangipahoa Parish Library staff)
Post–Hurricane Ida ceiling damage in the Ponchatoula branch of Louisiana’s Tangipahoa Parish Library Photo: Courtesy of Tangipahoa Parish Library staff

Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana on August 29—the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina—and then wound its way northeast, flooding parts of New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. A month later, many librarians in the path of the storm are still picking up the pieces.

Along the Gulf Coast, several communities lost power and flooded, and high winds led to downed trees and roof damage. “The parish got hit pretty hard,” says Barry Bradford, director of the six-branch Tangipahoa (La.) Parish Library (TPL) system. “The eye of the storm went up I-55, which runs the length of the parish, and the winds were 100 miles an hour.” Tropical Storm Nicholas, which followed two weeks after Ida, brought additional water damage. “We’ll lose some books,” he says. “We may have to replace to a couple hundred.” He added that the roofs on two of his branches were compromised and had to be tarped.

Even libraries with only minor damages felt the disruption. “Most of our branches fared well, though we had leaks through the ceiling and the sides of the walls,” says John Brdecka, currently in his fourth week as executive director of the five-branch Hancock County (Miss.) Library System. “One of our branches had a tree fall over in the parking lot, and another branch had flooding around it.”

“The township of Springfield got hit very badly,” says Dale Spindel, director of the Springfield (N.J.) Free Public Library (SFPL). “There was a lot of flooding, and the library got water throughout. By the time we got in, the rugs were saturated, there were pools of water throughout the building, and the smell was there from the moisture.”

In New York City, Elisabeth de Bourbon, director of communications for Queens Public Library (QPL), says that nine QPL branches closed for several days following Ida, with two remaining closed. “Both were flooded,” she says. “Our Lefrak City branch is below grade, and it was ruined. We’re still assessing and managing the damage there.” De Bourbon says the Elmhurst branch also flooded, but the damage is not as extensive.

Ida-related flooding also led to closures at Free Library of Philadelphia, where Meredith McGovern is children’s librarian at the Falls of Schuylkill branch. “The Schuylkill River flooded, and the main drag flooded,” she says. “Because [our branch] is on the top of a hill, we didn’t have any damage, but we closed early the day Ida hit. The whole system remained closed the day afterward because there was major flooding. The Vine Street Expressway looked like a canal.”

Rebounding slowly

Recovery will be take time, says Spindel, who is still assessing the extent of the situation. “There’s a small area of [children’s] board books that’s probably gone, and the township has commissioned an environmental study,” she says. Though, staffers were able to move some items to dry spaces and begin the process of cleanup with help from dehumidifiers and fans on loan from Springfield’s public works and fire departments. “At this point, I don’t know how long the library will be closed,” she says. “But we did have flood insurance. We had an adjuster come to our building within seven days, and we had an emergency appropriation in hand.”

De Bourbon says she hopes QPL’s Elmhurst branch will reopen within the next two weeks, despite the lack of an elevator, which was damaged by flooding. The Lefrak City branch will be shut down longer, so she expects QPL will use a mobile library in the interim. She added that both branches are still able to provide community Wi-Fi access.

Bradford says TPL was closed for two weeks, but the spaces are now back open, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Operation Blue Roof onsite to help residents. TPL continues to loan out its 65 mobile Wi-Fi hotspots and provides open internet to those within a 100-yard radius around its branches. TPL has secured help from FEMA and the local parish government, and TPL has received a $5,000 grant from the Financial Industry Regulatory Agency to replace some of the damaged personal finance books.

Community support

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, McGovern says the library provided a much-needed refuge. “We have air conditioning, Wi-Fi, and standard amenities,” she says. “And we’ve been designated as a small business recovery center because of the damage to our area.”

De Bourbon says the density of the QPL system means she was able to offer patrons other options while the two damaged branches were being repaired. “There is a QPL library within one mile of 99% of all 2.4 million residents,” she says. “Even with these two neighboring libraries closed, there are four others in the surrounding areas.”

A large part of Brdecka’s work has been to help people coming in from more damaged areas, including assisting college students from nearby New Orleans. “There were a lot of displaced Louisianans who found their way to Hancock County,” he says. “We offer free guest cards—which we’re doing through the end of the year—that give them access to computers as well.” Brdecka says it’s been a combined effort to ensure residents in Hancock County and displaced residents had services. “It’s amazing to see the librarians across the Gulf Coast support one another.”

According to Spindel, the previous 18 months helped her staff brace themselves for this latest challenge. “Staff members are doing these virtual programs from home,” she says, adding that SFPL has reciprocity with more than 30 other area libraries, which she can refer patrons to when needed. “And we may be ready to resume curbside pickup. In a strange kind of way, the pandemic prepared us for providing these kinds of services.”

The American Library Association’s (ALA) Disaster Relief Fund helps libraries after disasters both domestically and internationally. ALA works with its state chapters, state libraries, and international library associations to gather information and to distribute funds to help libraries rebuild. ALA is currently raising funds to support libraries damaged by Hurricane Ida.


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