Louisiana State University, School of Library and Information Sciences

Adelaide Fletcher, currently a librarian at the Denver Medical Library, Presbyterian / St. Luke’s Medical Library in Denver, Colorado and formerly a student at Louisiana State University, School of Library and Information Sciences in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, discusses her Hurricane Katrina experience from August 2005.

Interview date: June 8th, 2007

Questions:

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

I was a student at Louisiana State University’s School of Library and Information Sciences when Hurricane Katrina swept through the gulf coast. At the time, I was in Baton Rouge. But, I ended up volunteering at The Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales (about half way between Baton Rouge and New Orleans). The Expo Center filled with more than 1800 evacuees from New Orleans after the levees broke.

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

I volunteered at the Expo Center, doing whatever was required. I provided “general support,” getting people toothbrushes, basic supplies, etc… It was while I was getting someone an aspirin that I stumbled upon the medical treatment area of the Expo Center. I saw a Physician’s Desk Reference (PDR) lying around and I asked the doctor if he wanted more reference materials. He asked for a Merck Manual and three Washington Manuals.

I posted a request for books to the medical libraries listserv, MEDLIB-L and three other listservs. Well, the email was forwarded and forwarded … And the books came and came … They all came to my home. It was a tremendous response! The medical librarians sent some great books – much better than the ones I originally requested. I tried to send as many thank you notes as I could, but there were just too many donations. Some of the books were unsuitable (like a 1965 Merck Manual), but I had more than enough to build a collection in the shelter.

I tried my best to distribute the extra books but it was an absolute nightmare getting around at that time. Also, I didn’t know where the other shelters were located. Later, I ended up donating materials to under funded local hospital libraries in Southeast Louisiana.. I worked with my friend Becky Hebert, an outreach librarian for the Mid Atlantic Chapter of the National Network of the Libraries of Medicine (NN/LM). She and I tried to supply shelter health care providers with computers, Internet connections and volunteer librarians to do distance searching. Her husband worked in IT and he helped get a bunch of free computers. Unfortunately, most of those computers weren’t used because they had Linux as an operating system and people couldn’t fill out their FEMA forms unless they had Internet Explorer. But, people needed to get online. Eventually, FEMA provided a few lap tops. These helped a bit with reference and searching for people, but they were mostly used by kids to play games. I worked a bit helping people use the computers, especially since many were unfamiliar with the use of a mouse and keyboard. Web 2.0 responded in a big way; but, it could only go so far. People on the ground were unable to take full advantage of blogs and wikis, etc… because they didn’t have:

1. the connectivity

2. the computer skills

3. the knowledge of what was out there to help them.

After it was all over, I wrote an article about my experiences.

(3.) What did you learn from this experience?

The experience was totally exhausting and it took an emotional toll as well. But, in the end, I learned a lot. For example, there were a lot of shelters that were in the same boat. My response could have been much more coordinated. I did ask for multiple copies of resources, but I didn’t plan a way to deliver them. And the next time I appeal for donations on a listserv, I will be more specific and include a time limit. I should have asked for current materials and different titles. People wanted to help, but I didn’t tell that what exactly was needed and my friends and I quickly got bogged down in the details. A lot of items were received well after the point when they could have been any use.

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

There isn’t really one answer to that question because every disaster is so different. Librarians shouldn’t wait for an invitation; just start helping. People needed basics and they didn’t necessarily think about information. But, they really did need information; just look at how the public libraries were overwhelmed. So many people turned to the library. There is definitely a role for the library in a community disaster response.

When I was serving food with Becky, We realized that there had to be something more that we could offer. There were hordes of volunteers, but we could offer something different. That was how we got started. But, it was hard being “free agents.” No one wanted to talk to us and it was hard to articulate what we wanted to do. The Red Cross didn’t have time to talk to us. We tried to find out from them where the other shelters were, but they were having a hard enough time figuring that out themselves. The Red Cross was overwhelmed with need and volunteers at the same time, but they couldn’t handle both in that magnitude.

I went to the Red Cross headquarters first off, but they told me that I was too late for the training session that day. They told me to come back in a few days But, when we went to a shelter that night, the need was urgent and they pulled us right in! That was how we ended up at Lamar Dixon, which was desperate for volunteers. There just seemed to be this disconnect between the Red Cross central office and “its” shelters.

A lot of library school students helped. But they all went off on their own right away. I can see a role for the library schools in organizing the student volunteers. In many ways we were ideal because we were more available to help out. I was encouraged by my boss, the dean, to volunteer rather than work.

But actual coordinated groups didn’t form until later. I think that librarians need to be more unified in their initial response. We could learn a lot from the church groups. The Scientologists, for example, were everywhere. They wore matching shirts. They identified themselves. They seemed to be totally organized. Religious organizations did more for anyone than any government agency. That’s just what they do; they respond immediately. And they never stopped to ask, “should we help?” I think librarians were way too hesitant about helping out. They need to learn to trust their instincts. When the time comes, you’ll know what people need and how to help them.