Central Library Children’s Room, Houston Public Library, Texas

Sandy Farmer, Manager of the Central Library Children’s Room at the Houston Public Library, talks about how Hurricane Katrina affected the public library in August 2005.

Interview date: June 7th, 2007

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

I was in Houston when Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast. Initially, we thought that New Orleans had not been hit too badly. It looked as though Mississippi and Alabama got the worst of the storm but that New Orleans was going to be OK. But then the levees breached and New Orleans filled with water. More and more people were left stranded. New Orleans’s Superdome and convention center, which had been sheltering many people, were no longer safe and people had to leave the city. Judge Robert Eckels (the elected official for Harris County) and Houston’s Mayor, Bill White, made arrangements to house the evacuees from New Orleans in Houston. They opened up the Houston Astrodome and the George R. Brown Convention Center (also know as “The George”).

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

Harris County Public Library held a meeting on Friday morning to discuss their response. At 3:00 pm they found out that the convention center would be used to house Katrina refugees from New Orleans. An email went out asking for volunteers; and I foolishly responded. I say “foolishly,” because I ended up being in charge. And, to some extent, I became the “Last Man Standing.” In many ways, the library was lucky to get the call. The mayor recognized the contribution of the library and gave us space at the convention center. Many big businesses, like Target and Ikea, were also involved. They helped us set up our space in a hurry; we only had the weekend to get ready! When I got to the convention center, I saw that the library was allotted half of Ballroom A. The other half of the ballroom was being used by the Parks Service. As I looked around the building, I started thinking… What services could we offer? Which activities should we organize? What could we offer that was unique to the library? What could the library do that the Parks Service couldn’t? With the help of volunteers, I started moving $15,000 worth of the library’s toys and the IT department started loading up computers. When we got back to the convention center with our supplies, there were people everywhere. They were all volunteers (and they all needed something to do). Thousands and thousands of books were donated and I organized the volunteers in sorting them. Building services arrived with shelving. We had five ranges with six sections each. Then we received more volunteers. I got them to sort and shelve. In this way, we set up a whole library in our half of Ballroom A. I commandeered vehicles with drivers to haul supplies between the library and the convention center. Volunteers were everywhere looking for something to do. I organized them in unpacking toys and moving tables (IKEA helped with furniture). We had enough furniture to create an enclosure so that volunteers could read to kids in the toy area. While all of this construction was going on, the acting director came in to tell us that the convention center was now going to open up on Sunday instead of Monday. We had even less time. But, we had no choice but to say OK and to start moving faster. People were demanding my attention all over the place. IT people wanted to know where to put the data ports and the server. Volunteers were asking where the tables were supposed to go. Then, the inspectors came in to look at the shelving. They insisted that the shelves we built were “unsafe” and that we would have to put up supports. But they were the same shelves that we used in all of our branches across the city! I told them that I would address the problem when the rest of the “unsafe” library shelves in the city were reinforced. I was running around the whole time, trying to keep everything together while organizing a ton of people. Southwestern Bell (now ATT) volunteered to put in the data ports. Books just kept coming in the donation door. People brought an assortment of everything, but the screening of books came later. At this point, we were just moving them. At noon on Saturday, it was announced that the convention center was opening at 3:00 pm. It was only 24 hours after I had volunteered on Friday. I remember working non-stop with no break and no food. There was so much to do! IKEA and the IT people set up the computer area. But we needed more tables and chairs from the convention center. The data connection had been established through Southwestern Bell. But the library still had to follow government regulations and the Internet connection that we provided needed to be filtered. So we ended up routing the connection through the library server. Not all of the computers had an Internet connection though. We accepted about 15 machines that were just used for games. Right at 3:00 pm, the busses started arriving. But, we thought we would still have more time. As they arrived, people went through the medical treatment center, then the showers, and then they would find a place to sleep, get clean clothes, etc… Everyone was focused on the necessities at first. But, it didn’t take too long before we started to see the first waves of people. By 3:30 pm, we began to see the people who had come in from hotels. These people had run out of money, but they were in good shape otherwise. Many other people were in very rough shape. By this time, the Houston Astrodome was completely full and closed to new evacuees. We were next in line. Our first patron was a little boy – maybe only four years old. He came up to us and showed us his stuffed bear. Then he asked if he could get a toy for his bear. He explained that his bear had been in a flood. We brought him into our enclosed area where he played with a volunteer. Seeing this little boy happy in his quiet corner, I thought about all the kids who needed their own space. Then I made my first big mistake. Thinking about the children who had been sitting for far too long and were likely driving their parents nuts, I sent volunteers to round up the kids. But, I didn’t think of a way to get the kids back to their parents again! Later, we developed a sign-in system to make sure that the children were brought safely back to their families. For the first time in my life, I found every teenager that I talked to was quiet and polite. This was how I could tell that they were scared. And, to tell you the truth, polite teenagers are terrifying. At first, they were trying hard not to do anything wrong – but they got over it pretty quickly. It took a couple of days. In general, teens came and went pretty quickly. We were more of a refuge for them than anything else. At around 4:00 pm, I finally got some food. I used my personal Blackberry the whole time and would have been sunk without it. That first night, we stayed open until around 9:00 pm. I went home and fell asleep immediately. But, I was back the very next morning. By 9:00 am Sunday morning, the press had arrived. As I came in, I stopped to answer questions from CNN and then offered to show them around the floor. Suddenly, security was very tight. I had to prove who I was to get in the building as it had become very hard to gain access. I wanted to screen movies, but we could only show videos if we had the licenses. An A/V area was all set up, but we couldn’t show anything yet. I organized an effort to get the licenses as quickly as possible. In a very generous act, employees of the movie licensing company donated their own money to buy the licenses. They also gave us boxes and boxes of t-shirts and other give-aways. By now, all of the data ports and servers were set. The library donated their own brand new computers, which had been purchased for the branches. As soon as they were set up, there was a line. We limited people to half an hour at a computer. At any given time, there was a line of about 30 people waiting to get on a computer. Adults, kids, grandparents, etc… everyone was looking for information. One of the most common reference questions we received at first was, “Is my house underwater?” We answered the question by looking at Google satellite pictures to find out where their houses were. Then we checked out the flood maps that were being posted. Most of the time, we just saw a roof. It was sad and hard. These people were in a strange city and they had lost everything. About 90% of the people didn’t have any idea how to use the computers. Volunteers were a huge help. Starting on Saturday, we began scheduling library people to come in and help too. A typical shift was four hours long. Most people couldn’t handle much more than this. But, I was there full time. I think I was fueled almost entirely by adrenaline. But that only went so far. My back hurt and my head hurt and I just wanted to go home and go to bed. But I kept going. Sunday was the day to figure out the rules. None of volunteers (and even the librarians) had ever done anything like this before. And we clearly needed some management tools to organize shifts, computer time, volunteers, and the kids who were coming to our library space. I had to develop real working policies, with safety always as the first priority. It turned out to be a bad idea having some volunteers around the kids. We had to alert the police to a couple of individuals. Luckily, the police were very effective and they removed volunteer privileges right away. Donations were another problem. We called them the “disaster after the disaster.” There was just so much! It was completely overwhelming and we couldn’t process it all. People kept showing up with boxes and we couldn’t find a place to put them. In the end, we had accumulated literally thousands of boxes of crayons, coloring books, toys, etc… On Monday, regular library services continued without me. I normally supervise between three and four people. Luckily, I was in position to go and work off-site. I work with fantastic people and they were able to fill in for me at my regular job. When the video licenses were purchased, I went to Best Buy to get some movies (the big screen TV was thankfully donated). I spent $500 out of my own pocket on movies. The library eventually reimbursed me, but FEMA never gave any money to the library. The movies were an absolute necessity as we had to keep people occupied and entertained. After many days of living in the convention center, people were desperate to get their minds off what was happening. The library staff and volunteers had to help many people with their FEMA forms. I cannot tell you how painful it was to use the online FEMA forms! We would spend hours with people filling out the forms, only to have them be rejected. To find out the status of your house, you had to answer all of these security questions. Sometimes it would take hours just to get past the security features. Many people couldn’t answer the questions, like “Is one of these three families your neighbor?” A lot of people don’t know their neighbors (I know I don’t know all of mine). Once the form was accepted they got a claim number. But then we might have problems setting the user name and password. Nine times out of ten, FEMA couldn’t tell them the status of their claim. One lady came in after she has actually received her FEMA money. Unfortunately, they transferred the money to a bank that was underwater. The woman couldn’t get her money! We had to find out who regulated credit unions, call them, and get her on the list to be notified of the status. She had to open an account with a bank up the street (once she could prove that she met the minimum requirements). I never found out what happened with this woman or how her story ended. To be honest, it was like any other day in the library. We never get closure with the problems that we try to solve. But, I remember these people. They have stayed with me ever since. As the days and weeks passed, all of the city employees in the convention center were replaced by community volunteers. All the parks folks were pulled out. Church groups in Houston got together and organized it so that each group would work one day a week (Jewish, Baptists, Muslims, etc…). We often worked with the Baptist church people and they were wonderful. But, in general, new volunteers became a new problem. The National Guard was everywhere. The police were everywhere. This is when things got really interesting. Everyone had their own idea of how things should work. Some volunteers started coming in and telling me how to do my job. I had to handle people who felt that the toy area was a huge “trip hazard,” or that the teens were using the computers in “inappropriate” ways. Concerns were being raised about kids in the library space. There was no other daycare at the convention center, but we weren’t there just to serve children. As time went on, we developed a more elaborate system of tracking the kids; parents would sign in their kids and get a tag number. Identification would have to be presented in order to pick up their children. The health department came in and told us that everything had to be kept clean because of the risk of communicable disease. Toys, keyboards, and just about everything else had to be sterilized. So I organized volunteers to do the sterilization. I bought gallons of rubbing alcohol and Clorox wipes. I sprayed down all of the keyboards. In general, people were very good at cleaning up after themselves. In fact, the adult volunteers were almost too good at sorting. They felt that the toy area needed to be kept orderly at all times. I had to explain that this was a children’s area and that it was OK if toys were scattered around. I remember a reservist who lodged a complaint that teens were looking at bad things on the Internet. Unfortunately, I was not available to handle the problem right away and the volunteer mistakenly asked to teen to get off the computer. When I arrived, I had to reverse the decision and explain to the man that our computers were filtered according to federal regulation and that I didn’t have the right (and neither did he) to decide what was appropriate. He wasn’t happy. I ran the library at the convention center for 2 weeks. Luckily, things settled down into a predictable rhythm after the first couple days. Evacuees started leaving as soon as they arrived. Everyone wanted to leave as soon as possible; it was just a question of getting their FEMA money, or contacting family, or arranging for transportation… The convention center was an open environment. At its height, there were about 3500 people sleeping at The George. But, after things died down the numbers lessened to between 500 and 1000 people each night. In many respects, I held true to the code of behavior established at our branch library. A lot of the same problems emerged at the convention center that we encounter in our normal working world. After a point, the Baptist Church took over organizing and training the volunteers. This was a huge help, except we had to explain that our policies were non-negotiable. If volunteers couldn’t accept them, then they weren’t welcome. We had to council a lot of people on the rules for the computers. This was rough at first, but after a few days, everything stabilized. Some of our patrons, especially children, became “regulars” and they were there for the whole two weeks. Our library space became a home for the teenagers; and perhaps this was one of the most important services that we provided. I remember a whole crew of welders that came in together. They were looking for work and we found them a company that needed welders. We helped them find the company site on a map and told them how to get there. We did the same for people looking for apartments. I shared information about bus transportation and helped people get settled as quickly as people. Over time it became clear that my role had become that of a social worker! After we finally dismantled the library in the convention center, I took two weeks off. I had worked over 150 hours over those two weeks in the center. It was a great experience… and if I ever have to do it again, I’ll shoot myself.

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

The public library services changed almost immediately. Computer use at the branches went up dramatically. People wanted to know what was happening with their jobs, their home, their families… They had to figure out what to do next. Library cards were issued to all evacuees. The library put up web pages full of resources and we became a national source of information. Over time, the library services changed because we were still dealing with this population of folks who were trying to figure out what to do. We helped these people become a part of the community in Houston. Our computer classes were being heavily used by Katrina evacuees. We helped a lot of people who needed employment. These Katrina evacuees have stayed. Many people who were not library users before are now regular patrons. I hope that they will become library users for life. Now they know what the library has to offer, not just in an emergency but in their daily lives.

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

The library and the librarian need to be part of any community-wide disaster response plan. If the branch is above water, then it will become an emergency shelter anyways. Ever since Tropical Storm Alison, we have accepted this role. The public library branches are now prepared with supplies, emergency rations and cots. Libraries are a huge part of any local disaster response effort, but we need to be more aggressive with agencies like FEMA to create better service models on the web. I talked with one of the FEMA reps at the convention center. They had three old computers for processing applications and all of the same problems we did! I finally talked with an upper level guy. I really chewed him out for their poor services, but he just looked at me like I was crazy. He didn’t have a clue. He wasn’t out on the front lines with these people. Libraries and librarians have the resources to help people with these applications. We have the computers and the staff and the space, but we aren’t a part of the planning process; we aren’t even considered! Unfortunately, librarians have to share this blame. Thirty years ago, we were just a place with books. But now, we are the only place in the community with the resources to help these people in need. And we need to be prepared, not just for what might happen in our community, but for what could happen in our neighboring towns and in the next state over… We need to consider the population increase and the people who aren’t in shelters. There will be people who are new to our communities who need our help to get their lives back. In the grand scheme of things, this service is critical. It is more important than questions of taxation or service models; it is about helping people when they need it the most.
Share this post on Share on FacebookShare on LinkedInEmail this to someoneShare on TumblrTweet about this on Twitter
This entry was posted in Hurricanes, Lessons Learned and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.