Houston Academy of Medicine, Texas Medical Center Library

Deborah Halsted, Associate Director, Public Services and Operations, Houston Academy of Medicine, Texas Medical Center Library in Houston, Texas, discusses flooding issues in the academic health sciences library resulting from Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001.

Interview date: June 5th, 2007

Questions:

(1.) What happened in your community (i.e., what was the disaster/emergency)?

Between June 8th and 9th, 2001, Tropical Storm Allison circled over the Houston metropolitan area for the third time, dumping a lot of rain over already saturated ground. One of the most heavily hit areas of the city was the Texas Medical Center, which is home to over 40 health-related institutions. Hardest hit were Memorial Hermann, Methodist and Ben Taub Hospitals, The University of Texas Medical School and Baylor College of Medicine. The Houston Academy of Medicine-Texas Medical Center (HAM-TMC) Library is situated right in the middle of these institutions. The morning of June 9th the library had 4.5 feet of water in the street level, which meant the one-level parking garage under the library was completely full of water. The street level housed the computer classroom and lab, the offices of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine South Central Region, and the Archives of the John P. McGovern Historical Research Center.

While the flooding in the Library was devastating, the damage in the other institutions was more drastic. Both Hermann and Ben Taub Hospitals (the only Level I trauma hospitals in Houston) had to be evacuated. Yes, even the patients. Hermann was closed for 6 weeks. Methodist lost all their patient records. UT and Baylor lost years and years of research, both in laboratories and laboratory animals. The south side of the TMC campus was saved due to two huge construction sites (pits) which served as retention ponds.

(2.) How did the library respond? How did the librarian respond? Were there non-traditional (unusual) roles that the librarian performed?

The HAM-TMC Library is unique in that it is a private library which rents 72,000 square feet of space from the Houston Academy of Medicine (HAM). Due to this arrangement, HAM was responsible for recovery and restoration of the actual facility and Library staff members were responsible for the contents. Both of us had prior relationships with Munters, a recovery firm, and they were on the scene the morning of June 8th. Library staff could do nothing until the water was pumped out, so our recovery efforts began on Sunday, June 10th.

Did library staff do non-traditional roles? Yes! Digging muck, contaminated with sewer water might be considered “other duties as assigned.” But, loyal library staff arrived on Sunday to do what they could to save anything we could, especially the archives.

The Library was one of the few institutions in the northern part of the TMC with water still running, so we became a popular spot since we had working restrooms. We also had to post a TMC security officer at the front door, since some people displaced from their offices in other building thought they would just come to the library to “photocopy some articles.” The security guard had to explain that the Library, too, had no electricity.

Although the entire TMC was affected, the Library staff were really only responsible for recovery of the Library. Staff members were not called upon to assist other institutions or departments, as was the case after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In our case, local librarians not affected by the flood, as well as some library clients displaced from their offices and unable to work, arrived on our doorstep offering help.

With a lot of work and many thanks to the HAM staff, we had electricity and phone lines (although spotty on both accounts) back on by Wednesday. We opened our doors with limited hours and services on Thursday. Recovery efforts on the building continued until January 2002, when we finally opened totally, with a renovated street level. Over 850 boxes of wet archives were shipped off to freeze-dry facilities, and returned in October 2001. It took many months to process the materials that returned. We have since relocated the archives to a warehouse facility about 3 miles from the TMC campus that is not in a known flood zone.

(3.) How has the library (or the services provided) changed as a result of these events?

The first change would be the location of the archives. Renting the warehouse facility is expensive, but necessary. Now, clients needing access to the archives can go to a lovely facility with free parking. We have also co-located our proxy server to a remote location, so in the event of another storm (we do live on the Gulf Coast), clients will still have access to needed resources. We are in the process of having key staff test working from home to ensure that if needed, we can continue to offer library services remotely.

(4.) What, in your opinion, are the roles for libraries (and librarians) in disaster planning, response and recovery efforts?

This question can be answered on so many different levels, depending on the type of library. The roles for public libraries after a disaster are obvious, and I am proud to say that the public libraries in Houston and surrounding areas really responded to the needs of the evacuees. What is not so evident is the importance of the medical library. After Katrina, physicians in the Astrodome and George R. Brown found themselves treating patients and cases not in their usual area of expertise. These patients had no medical records with them, were taking medications the physicians were not familiar with, and the doctors found their greatest need was a PDR (Physician’s Desk Reference). For example, pediatricians were treating geriatrics, since they took whatever patient was next in line. For that reason, staff members at the HAM-TMC Library have become totally ingrained into the disaster planning at the TMC as a whole. Librarians have sat on the Inter-institutional Council, Katrina and Rita Lessons Learned Task Force, and disaster planning committees. At first, the TMC staff wondered why we were there, but now has come to conclusion that librarians are integral to the process. I have been invited to participate with TMC staff in NIMS Incident Command System training. These courses, designed by FEMA, offer a standardized command system and terminology to respond to disasters. They will soon be required for any institution to received FEMA funding in the future. The Library has now incorporated the ICS system into the newly named Business Continuation and Recovery Plan formerly known as our Disaster Plan. Our main goal in all this was to been seen as first responders, which we now are. TMC will be issuing key library staff sticker to be among the first responders the next time a major disaster strikes. This designation is a mixed blessing, since this means we now will be expected to be among the first on hand, not part of the general population asked to stay away until the area is safe!
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