Gunter Library, Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, University of Southern Mississippi

Joyce Shaw, a librarian at the Gunter Library in the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory at the University of Southern Mississippi in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, discusses the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the academic library in August 2005.

Interview date: June 8th, 2007

Questions:

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

Ocean Springs, Mississippi was very hard hit by Hurricane Katrina – even though we were 50 miles from where the storm made landfall. The damage was so extensive that we are still living in a disaster zone today.But, it looked like we were out of the way when the storm was still out on the gulf. We had some basic supplies ready. There was an announcement to evacuate, but my family and I did not. I came into the library on the Saturday before the storm. Everything had been up in the air on Friday. Nothing “official” had happened yet. One of my staff was returning from a trip to Atlanta and the other had plans to go to Jackson. Summer School was out by this time, so there were no undergraduates or out of state students on campus (which was very lucky).

We have big windows facing north and I am always worried about it smashing because of debris. I never thought for one minute to worry about flooding.

After implementing our standard hurricane procedures at work, I went home to weather the storm. You couldn’t say that I was terribly prepared; the whole time I only had $12 on me. But, I couldn’t have used it anyways as everything was closed! The electricity went off at about 6:30 am on Monday the 29th. At around 9:30 am a tree hit our house. Then water started coming up at the back of the house from the harbor, which was pretty surprising as our house has an elevation of 21 feet. The storm surge pushed the water into everything. My son and I were running around trying to save our stuff. I grabbed a towel and put it under the door – it was the stupidest thing I could have done! But, I wasn’t thinking straight. I would call it an “in the moment experience.” And we didn’t have it as bad as the people who got stuck up a tree!

The storm just seemed to keep going and going. It seemed to last around 12 hours and after the first six hours it just got so boring (after the excitement of the tree and the water coming up) waiting around for it to end. The next morning, there was no phone. No cell phone. Trees and utility poles were down every where. I walked to the house of one of my library staff lived around five blocks away. It was my first realization at how bad things were. When I came home, my brother and sister-in-law had arrived to tell me my niece and her family had lost their home which had been our grandparent’s house built in 1902. His architectural firm in Gulfport had flooded. He gave me a ride to work. I couldn’t believe how bad the damage was everywhere. We couldn’t get very close to the research lab, but I knew things were bad. In the end, I didn’t get officially called back to work until September 8th. I made several trips to campus prior to that to meet with the director and to grab a year’s worth of blood pressure medicine I had left in my office.

The electricity was out for two weeks. The whole time I was just holed up at home, cleaning debris from the yard every day, listening to radio reports at night of what had happened in New Orleans. There was nothing on the news about the Mississippi coast at first. But, after a while I learned how lucky Ocean Springs was; we didn’t lose our downtown (it was one of the only ones left on the coast). Shelters started to open up on Monday. There was one in the high school in the next town over. Churches were opening their doors too. And the Red Cross arrived and started to provide basic shelter and supplies. The National Guard set up water and ice distribution centers called EOCs. When I wasn’t cleaning up debris around my home, I was waiting in line for ice and water and distributing it to several of my elderly neighbors.

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

Before I left the library, I went through my regular hurricane procedures. I covered the computers with plastic and moved them away from the windows and bagged up everything I could. The library is right on a marsh and a bayou and the campus fronts the Mississippi Sound. This certainly wasn’t my first hurricane warning. I’ve been through this about 6 or 7 times – I pack up the same way every time. I didn’t pick anything up off the floor though (I wish I had).The morning after Katrina, as I was walking to the campus, I encountered one of our parasitologists who was climbing over the debris of several homes that blocked the road to the campus. He told me that buildings were lost on campus. In was pretty interesting (and creepy too) that some of the buildings that were lost to Hurricane Camille in 1969 were also lost this time. The buildings were even named the same! Camille and Katrina had been similar in their paths. Hurricanes are just a fact of life on the Mississippi coast, but not a regular occurrence. Not like this.

Apparently, my building was standing but flooded. But, I couldn’t find a way to get there except over the debris mountain. Right then a woman drove up and asked if I was trying to get into the research lab. She offered a way to get there without crawling over the debris. In exchange, I would help her find her daughter. After we found the daughter, taking a back way she drove me to the gate of the campus and left me there. It was like going through a battle zone. There were a handful of employees doing the same thing I was. I asked one of them if he would go into the library with me. It sounds silly, but I was too scared to go into the building alone. I must have been visibly upset. We pulled and pulled to get the door open. Inside, it was dark and hot. I started to feel faint from the extreme heat. Furniture had been thrown everywhere and there was this muck everywhere. It was slippery and sticky and disgusting. I fell down in it. Even without a flashlight, I could tell we were flooded. I tried to find the emergency file with the phone numbers (not that it would have done any good since there were no phones). I couldn’t find anything for the office being flooded. I did find the file eventually – around nine or ten months later! The label on the file folder had fallen off due to the dampness.

There was nothing more I could do that day, so I went home to start thinking. I was worried about my job. Lots of other people at the research lab were thinking the same thing. They were all wandering around like me, with the same worried looks on their faces.

I went back the next day and talked with the director of the research lab. My library does not answer to the university libraries, we report to the campus director. He gave me permission to hire a catastrophe company to help salvage the library. There were lots of things that I didn’t know at the time about the university’s disaster plans – like that they already had a contract with a disaster company. I tried calling the University Libraries in Hattiesburg every time I found a phone for the next week. I couldn’t get through.

I didn’t know who else to call and I only had two minutes to make a call when I had a working phone. I had grabbed some numbers, including the archivist at Duke University who gave me the number of some companies. I finally got in touch with the University Libraries on the Tuesday after Labor Day and two days later they sent down a representative to assess the damage. It took four more days after that call–two weeks after the storm hit–to get a company to come and the whole time our collection was wet and sitting in muck.

In the meantime, I started to address the environmental conditions. I sealed off the space and cleaned all the vents. Our Physical Plant folks got the electricity on September 8th, so I was able to run de-humidifiers which were important because the building’s HVAC was damaged by the storm. My staff and a graduate student volunteer used Clorox wipes to clean just about everything not water damaged by the flood. I had two lab technicians and two graduate students who began mucking out the building.

We ran the library from the front porch of the building for several weeks. There was a sheltered portico and we set up a desk there. Once classes began about 3 weeks after the storm, the students came back. I would just fetch things for them out of the building. They couldn’t go into the building because it was labeled by state inspectors as unsafe. But, we took our services portable. We had a lap top and just went wherever we were needed. One of my staff worked at home with a laptop compiling an inventory of lost books and journals.

During this time I was asked by one of our scientists to help a retired ichthyologist who lived near campus whose house had severely flooded. Several of us went to his home and found it in terrible condition-books, filing cabinets, this man’s life work-thrown about by the flood water and coated in mold. He was endangering his life trying to work alone in the mold to save his scientific materials. We helped him salvage what he could and packed over 150 boxes of files, books, journals, and reprints. Two years later, the library still has his collection stored. He and his wife have moved from the area and relocated to Atlanta. Their lives have been changed forever.

The company that was hired to clean the library was being used to clean other rooms in the building before doing the library. Then on Wednesday they were sent away because it was determined that their services were too expensive. By this point, I had been waiting and waiting. I couldn’t believe it! Finally (and after talking with the director) a crew started cleaning, but they did a hurry-up and get-out job. They clearly didn’t care. But I did. So, I went back and finished it up myself.

In the end, we lost our bottom shelves of books-everything 13″ or lower. But it could have been worse. We could have lost the bottom two shelves. The hardest part was facing what I had lost. I had to watch as about 20% my collection was picked up by a front loader and put in a dump truck to be taken to a land fill.

We spent weeks outside in front of the building cleaning what furniture we could salvage from the library and the classroom down the hall using bleach and WD-40. The rest of the furniture and our circulation desk were hauled off to debris piles. But we saved our big library table, a book truck, and a host of task chairs and smaller tables from the class room. The University sent down some used furniture from their surplus for our campus and we were given two desks from that donation.

The same clean-up work was going on all over campus. Every person was responsible for cleaning their work space, lab, office, etc. With over 35 employees and students made homeless by the storm, our director made the priority to get the dormitory cleaned and set up as temporary housing for staff and students. National Guardsmen were stationed at the gate and once a day the Red Cross van would bring food to campus for them. Our campus is located in a nice residential area of town that was severely damaged. There were fears of looting especially because there were no streetlights and no people able to live in what was left of their homes. We felt safe having the National Guard close at hand. With humvees, helicopters, armed military, and debris and disaster everywhere, it really did look and feel like a war zone. And we were in the “lightly” hit area. Even 10 miles west of us it was much worse.

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

I’m trying my best to make better preparations. Next time, I’ll be sand bagging the building (even if I have to do it myself). I’ve been trying for years to get hurricane shutters and I’ll keep trying. I think I’ve become more proactive about fighting for the things I need.The library went portable for a long time. We didn’t really have much choice as we had to serve our students and faculty. We now have wireless access in the library which is good because many of our faculty and students had replace their desk top computers with laptops.

The library received a SOLINET (Southeastern Library Network) grant to help rebuild the collection. I had to make a list of everything that we had lost; there were over 1300 books. It was emotionally devastating to go through the list, trying to decide what to replace. I was faced with the names of items that were irreplaceable. I realized that you can’t ever get it all back, no matter how much money people give you.

We received a donation from Rotary Zones 29 and 30 to replace lost equipment and furniture. And we received two computers, a scanner, and five books from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine/Southeastern Atlantic region. These gifts have been a blessing.

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

Librarians need to save the libraries. I wish I could have been more involved in the community response, but I had too much on my plate and little support. If I could do it again, I would be more proactive. Librarians have to make themselves heard. They should be disaster management teams for their universities. I tried my best at the time, but my voice just wasn’t heard. Being part of an institution didn’t help. No one thought about the library; the place was just too hard hit. I did my best to rise to the occasion, but all I could do was try to save what was left of the library. But now I am on three different task forces and doing my best to be heard.Librarians really need to get some perspective. I received a survey questionnaire months later asking how effective a blog had been at helping me. I couldn’t believe it. A blog? How effective was their blog??? I wanted to yell at those people, “Don’t start a blog! Go and help! Just go!”

Here are pictures that illustrate Joyce Shaw’s story:

Photo by A. Russel. [Joyce is…] in the pink socks. August 8th 2005

Joyce next to book case

August 2005 035 (photo by A. Russell) Gunter Library Gulf Coast Research Laboratory

Gunter Library Gulf Coast Research Laboratory

Caylor water line after Katrina 30 inches in the hall way but only 13″ to 15″ in the library–very lucky! (J. Shaw photo)

Water Line in Library

GCRL Karina (5) library in the portico of the building. Those are BMS Cat. guys (the clean up company) horsing around. (J. Shaw photo)

BMS cat. guys

GCRL Karina (1) Library furniture (and stuff from some of the laboratories) in a debris pile.

Debris Pile

107 Pine Drive on 30 August 2005 This was my house the day after Katrina.

Joyce Shaw's Home

107 Pine Drive Katrine (2) Within a few day after the storm, everything turned brown! The salt spray burned the trees. Compare this photo which was about 2 weeks after the storm to the day after. The area looked like somebody took a match to everything!

Two weeks later

A big limb smashed the door and the wind blew the pictures out of the frames! Hallway of Caylor Building–where the library is located. (photo by Joyce Shaw)

Hallway of Caylor Building

August 2005 038 (A. Russell photo)

Library Stack

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