Rebuilding Communities after Disasters

How libraries are connecting patrons to support, aid, resources

September 29, 2017

Hurricane Irma

Libraries in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere are still reeling from devastating hurricanes that have blasted the region over the last month.

Now librarians around the country are working to assist in recovery efforts and connect patrons—particularly those of Hispanic and Latin heritage—with support groups, aid organizations, and other resources.

Loida Garcia-Febo, president-elect of the American Library Association (ALA), who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, said the disaster there is personal: Her family is still on the island and dealing, along with the rest of the population, with the lack of power, water, services, and internet access.

Garcia-Febo said disaster relief organizations and library groups like Reforma, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking, are still assessing the damage. She said ALA has established contact with the University of Puerto Rico Library, the Library Society of Puerto Rico, and the Puerto Rican chapter of Reforma, the organization’s largest, and is just beginning to gauge their needs.

Reforma has launched a disaster relief taskforce to help libraries in Puerto Rico, said Garcia-Febo, who served as president of that organization in 2009–2010.

Meanwhile, ALA chapters in Florida and Texas have taken the lead on recovery efforts in those states, and ALA has established a disaster relief fund for libraries in the Caribbean hit by Hurricane Irma.

Connecting patrons

While efforts to rebuild will take months if not years, Garcia-Febo said libraries across the country can assist stateside by connecting patrons with friends and family across the Caribbean and in Mexico, which experienced three disastrous earthquakes in September.

Libraries can begin by holding community forums and brainstorming ways to address the situation, she said. They also can provide counseling services and direct patrons to disaster relief agencies and resources.

“Libraries serving communities with close ties to Puerto Rico can help their patrons,” she said, “by opening the doors and exploring ways to support that community that is concerned about their loved ones.”

Relief in Florida and Texas

In Florida, Robin Shader, president of the Florida Library Association (FLA), said her organization is working with the State Library and Archives of Florida to gather information from storm-torn libraries.

“The ones who are most deeply affected are the ones who are slowest to get in touch with us about their status,” she said.

Most libraries have power, but some are still inoperable, Shader said. “There are some libraries in the state that we know have a lot of damage and won’t be reopening for the foreseeable future,” she said.

FLA has established a Florida Libraries Disaster Relief Fund, which has raised almost $4,000, and the Florida Rebuild Network, which is connecting libraries in need with those who can contribute goods and services. The network is organized through an online spreadsheet that can be accessed by donors and library administrators, Shader said.

The idea for the online database was inspired by the Texas Library Recovery Connection, established by the state library association in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Shader said.

Wendy Woodland, director of communications for the Texas Library Association (TLA), said that once the extent of the damage to libraries became known, “we started getting calls from publishers and libraries around the state and country wanting to donate books and resources.”

TLA was not positioned to receive delivery of books and other physical donations, so the organization created the Google spreadsheet and began pushing it out to its members, Woodland said.

“We want it to be a living document,” she said. “Libraries enter their contact information and what they need, and others enter their information and what they have to offer.”

TLA also has established a disaster relief fund, which has raised roughly $95,000 from more than 970 individuals and corporations. The organization has earmarked $100,000 in grants of up to $5,000 for libraries damaged by the hurricane, she said.

How to get involved: