Memphis Public Library and Information Center, Tennessee

Kay Due, Manager of Public Services at the Memphis Public Library and Information Center, discusses the hurricanes that affected the library in July 2003 and August 2005.

Interview date: June 6th, 2007

Questions:

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

The first recent disaster in our community was a storm we still “fondly” call “Hurricane Elvis”. On the morning of July 22, 2003, a storm with 100mph straight-line winds struck Memphis. Approximately 4,500 houses were damaged; 306,000 customers were without electricity; untold numbers of huge trees were toppled – some onto houses, some in the streets.

Next, in September, 2005, we had our first experience with a “second tier disaster.” Memphis received an influx of 18,000 evacuees from the Katrina and Rita hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. Early during this crisis, the remnants of Katrina swept through Memphis and knocked out electricity to 70,000 homes. Luckily, that damage was quickly dispatched. What took longer was responding to the information and social services needs of thousands of displaced persons.

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

2003 windstorm: Response was delayed for 2-3 days because electricity was out in many of our branches and our radio and TV stations were not operating. A few of our branches also experienced minor storm damage. The Central Library had emergency generator power but all systems were not operational. In addition, we had staff dealing with damaged homes and disordered lives!

For those first few days, staff worked by flashlight to answer phones. LINC (Library Information Center at the Memphis Public Library) staff served as the system and community hub. They posted information received by telephone about library services, damages, outages, Memphis Light Gas and Water anticipated work sites, and emergency contact numbers. While computers were inoperable, they referred callers to social services agencies using a print copy of the LINC Community Resources Database. They monitored radio stations and newspapers in order to answer questions about downed power lines, stores that still had generators, batteries and ice to sell, which gas stations were open and operational.

One of the most frequent question topics was food loss due to the power outages: “My electricity has been out for five days and I’ve kept my food in a cooler. Is it safe to eat?” OR “I had $200 worth of food in my freezer and it’s all ruined. Can I get compensation for that?” OR “How do I get the smell of ruined food out of my refrigerator?”

When the magnitude of the disaster became more apparent, service providers and government agencies (Mayor’s Office, City Council, EMA, Volunteer Memphis, DHS, TN Congressional offices were all urged to add LINC to their distribution list for updates. Emergency services were contacted frequently, including hotlines, shelters, and volunteer agencies.

On July 30, the MPLIC (Memphis Public Libraries and Information Center) television and radio stations were running again and began to broadcast programs with information about how citizens could get services. Tennessee Representative Mike Kernell spearheaded this effort, along with Tennessee Representative Carol Chumney. These elected officials along with library staff, brought in representatives from TEMA (Tennessee Emergency Management Agency) and many other service providers and continued programming for several weeks.

On August 2, FEMA representatives arrived and LINC staff began gathering information about federal disaster assistance, which all library staff then distributed to customers. FEMA/TEMA faxes were distributed throughout the system so all staff could answer questions. The local social services email distribution list, facilitated by LINC staff, was used as an information distribution point for FEMA/TEMA. FEMA/TEMA staff was trained on and utilized the Community Information Database to identify local services that could fill in gaps for services not provided through federal assistance programs. FEMA/TEMA staff also utilized library staff telephones to submit their electronic reports.

The library also served as a community gathering place. Not the least of what we had to offer at some of our libraries was a little bit of air conditioning! We had customers coming in to use our computers and our wireless system so they could conduct their businesses online and contact family members to let them know they were safe. Customers were allowed to use library electricity to recharge batteries for various types of medical equipment. Whole families came in to get a little peace and quiet — away from the constant buzz of power saws cutting tree limbs and the roar of electric generators.

Katrina/Rita response of 2005: The library system employed many of the same responses so well learned in 2003. Because of relationships developed during the disaster of 2003, emergency management agencies were quick to include library staff in their response teams.

Library administration held daily strategy meetings to develop service responses and communication methods. Policies were bent and broken and the budget and staff were stretched and tested – in order to address the changing needs of the evacuees and to continue serving our local citizens, as follows:

Ø The LINC/2-1-1 staff again served as the “information distribution hub” for the library system, local government, service providers, faith-based groups and other social services agencies. The 2-1-1 service had only been operational for three months before Katrina hit. Most residents from Louisiana were familiar with 2-1-1, so the number was heavily used when they arrived in Memphis. Although we were too busy to take statistics during the first week of the crisis, during the first and busiest month, the system responded to 7,213 information requests from evacuees.

Ø Again, the Information and Referral Database (the backbone of our 2-1-1 service) was used to provide social service referrals.

Ø Staff at every branch compiled information into manageable print and online “notebooks” so they could assist evacuees.

Ø LINC/2-1-1 staff provided technical assistance for volunteers at the call center.

Ø System staff volunteered at the call center until the number was finally transferred to 2-1-1.

Ø Free, 3-month library cards issued to evacuees.

Ø Limited number of free copies made available to evacuees.

Ø Staff provided story-times for younger children while their caregivers were trying to get emergency assistance at the Red Cross and shelters. (There were also several community partners for these activities.)

Ø Printed and distributed 50,000 copies of the library activity calendar to shelter sites and to hotels/motels where evacuees were housed.

Ø All public computers changed to 1-hour limits to handle the demand.

Ø The FEMA website required access to Internet Explorer 6.0. Most of our public computers were 5.5. FEMA also required JAVA script. All public computers in branches dealing with large numbers of evacuees were upgraded to ensure the ability to complete FEMA applications.

Ø Assisting with FEMA applications was a huge staff effort. The FEMA website did not allow a print copy to be made, so evacuees were spending hours trying to figure out the complicated application. MPLIC staff figured out a way to create a print copy and made it available at all sites, so evacuees could plan their responses before getting online. This drastically reduced time spent online. When FEMA personnel visited the Central Library, they were complimentary of the initiative.

Ø Meeting rooms were set aside for service provider groups.

Ø JobLINC and INFOBUS mobile units were dispatched to shelter sites to help people find jobs and to provide library services on-site.

Ø Katrina “webliography” added to the library website and constantly updated with the latest local, regional, national information.

Ø During the regular book sale in October, books were sold at half-price to Katrina/Rita evacuees.

Ø LINC staff served on the Hurricane Katrina Taskforce.

Ø As they did in 2003, WYPL radio and TV communicated library updates and information about relief efforts to the community.

Ø LINC staff worked with Red Cross to provide intake for those looking for missing family and friends as well as to provide information for potential volunteers for the clean-up.

Ø Worked with EMA to identify basic needs assistance.

Ø Identified locations for temporary housing of pets.

Ø Provided assistance to evacuees in obtaining their medications. Many lost their medicine or ran out during the evacuation. Many could not contact their home pharmacies or doctors to obtain records.

Ø Map of Memphis added to library website to print off for evacuees.

Ø EMA collected donations in the Central Library parking lot.

Ø Many branch staff collected donations on their own.

Ø The library provided rewarding volunteer opportunities to two New Orleans evacuees who were professional librarians. These volunteers were able to provide computer assistance to other evacuees.

Ø Staff was privy to horrendous stories from refugees. It was emotionally draining. The system had professional counselors in to help staff cope.

Ø Staff found a wonderful use for their reader advisory skills: many evacuees wanted escapist literature to forget their trouble while others were looking for books about overcoming and surviving disasters.

Ø At every library site, evacuees shared their stories with staff members who stopped what they were doing and listened. Again, the library served as an all-important community meeting place.

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

During both disasters, other emergency numbers were set up: in 2003 by local government and in 2005 by the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Advertising of these numbers caused some confusion for citizens. During the Katrina crisis, LINC staff assisted at the second site by providing technical assistance and helping staff the phones, but in just two weeks time, there was recognition that library staff alone could provide the needed referrals. The special number was then transferred directly to the 2-1-1 call center. Because our information skills were recognized, this duplication of effort should not occur in future disasters.

Due to its pivotal services during these disasters, LINC has been working ever since with our local EMA in local planning for disaster response. The LINC/2-1-1 disaster plan has been confirmed by EMA and is being written into the Shelby County Emergency Response Plan.

The library system has been established as a “need to restore service” by our local utility provider in future disasters. The library radio station, WYPL, serves as the designated emergency broadcast station and receives priority “need to restore service.”

The library system’s Emergency Procedures Handbook has been updated, but we have much more work to do to create a system-wide disaster plan. We have attempted and will continue to attempt to acquire funding to upgrade emergency capabilities, specifically: upgrade the Central emergency generator; add generators to other branches; add Children’s Department to Central emergency generator grid; add wiring to allow additional telephones to be installed immediately.

During 2006, United Way provided MPLIC with a grant for a Katrina Coordinator. This position assisted with updating the database, triaged calls from evacuees, and served as liaison with the Katrina relief coalition.

To the present day, LINC staff members are still active in local relief coalitions. Katrina evacuees are still present in the Memphis community and still require social service efforts from the community.

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

The library should serve as the centralized resource for information to be collected from service providers and then distributed to citizens in need. This is a necessity during emergencies and is validation of the one number for social service assistance: 2-1-1. It is vital that the 2-1-1 service become nationwide and be sufficiently funded.

Libraries enjoy a high degree of public trust and are known to provide unbiased information on other topics, so are uniquely situated to serve as reputable, accessible providers of disaster-related information. Citizens view their libraries as open, welcoming places in their everyday lives; therefore, coming to the library or getting information from a library during a crisis is logical and comforting.

The library should be an active participant in the local emergency plan. Libraries should serve as “second responders” during disaster. Their role is not to respond such as fire and police departments are mandated to do. As defined by the United Way: “The ‘Second Response’ follows closely, and sometimes in sync with, the First Response during and after a disaster. Responders are community and faith-based organizations which provide critical health, human and social services to victims of disaster.” Libraries provide an essential information service which is key to any disaster recovery effort. Unlike shelters and the Red Cross and FEMA/TEMA and others who are telling those in crisis what to do, libraries provide needed information. Library customers can maintain some element of control in their lives, which is vital to successfully working through the crisis at hand.

Suggestions for what the National Library of Medicine could do to help us during a disaster:

Ø Support legislation enabling funding for 2-1-1 throughout the country.

Ø During medical disasters (ex. SARS; bird flu) distribute definitive medical information to libraries/Health Departments via email lists and websites.

Ø During local/regional emergencies (ex. hurricanes/tornadoes/flooding/earthquakes) assist local Health Departments in distribution of medical information.

Ø Participate fully in FEMA disaster plans on national level.

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this project! I would like to mention that several MPLIC staff, especially Audrey May, LINC Public Services Supervisor, provided information for these responses.

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