Great ideas from Utah

Claire Hamasu, Associate Director of the MidContinental Region of NN/LM at Eccles Health Sciences Library, University of Utah in Salt Lake City, has sent us the recently implemented documentation developed by their library’s emergency preparedness team.  It looks great, and we expect it will be really helpful to NN/LM members as an example of emergency/disaster planning for any type of library.  They have provided their version of the Pocket Response Plan (PReP) (originally devised by the Council of State Archivists–see the “Disaster Plan Templates” page above) as well as a photo and the content of a flip-chart they designed for display in the library.  The flip-chart provides quick and easy access to the key parts of their plan, while the PReP provides their staff with an easy-to-carry concise version of their plan for use from off-site.

We appreciate the willingness of the emergency preparedness team at Eccles HSL to share their work with us, and congratulate them on a job well done!  See the “Disaster Plan Templates” page above to check out their documents.  Many thanks to Claire for reporting her library’s progress and sending us these great ideas!

Eccles Library Flip Chart

Eccles Library Flip Chart

Robert M. Bird Health Sciences Library, University of Oklahoma

Marty Thompson, the Director of the Robert M. Bird Health Sciences Library at the University of Oklahoma, discusses how the library was involved in the aftermath of the bombing in Oklahoma City in April 1995.

Interview date: June 26th, 2007


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

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was the first terrorist attack on US soil. Now, I think of it as being very minor compared to others – but at the time, it was the most horrible thing we could imagine. The car bomb just ripped the building apart. We waited for news of survivors, but there weren’t many after the first afternoon. It was devastating for the community; most people knew someone who died (or knew someone who knew someone). There was a huge impact on children too.

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

The library system always jumps to help, but there wasn’t much we could do during the initial response phase. First responders were concentrating on finding survivors. And we just waited to hear.

Personally, my first priority was helping our staff members cope with the grief. Every staff member had a different situation as a result of the disaster. I had to treat them all as individuals and handle each of them appropriately. Only when the library staff members were able to move forward did we re-focus on the health professional community. We were very lucky as no one on our staff was directly involved. But we all knew families that were. Some staff found it very difficult to pull certain library materials (psychiatry and pathology). I believe that it was harder on the paraprofessionals than on the professional staff. The professional staff members were wonderful; they did everything possible to serve our community. Our reference staff acted very professionally and they were able to deal with any question. For the most part, the paraprofessional staff was shielded from medical cases.

But, everyone needed to find a way to deal with the constant reminders of this terrible event. The State Medical Examiner’s office is only one block from the library. Of course, all of the bodies went there. The building was roped off for a long time and our staff had to see it every time they came to work. I didn’t think beforehand about how this would affect them, but it was terribly upsetting. I had to suggest to some people that they take another route to work. It wasn’t obvious to some people that they had to change their regular routine in order to deal with the stress and the emotional impact.

Support came from everywhere. We received many calls from other libraries. They asked if we needed help with ILL (interlibrary loan). Vendors called to offer support. From just a few comments, they started to send us pathology and psychiatry resources. They suggested databases that might be turned on for a period of time. Everyone wanted to help; and I swiftly came to realize just how small and tightly knit the library community was. The headquarters for the Metropolitan Library System was only four blocks south of the explosion. Technically speaking, they were “inside the yellow tape,” for several days. The force of the explosion blew out all of their windows. As much as possible, we tried to support them and to solicit help on their behalf.

We had a strong desire to do more, but the reality was different. People will tell you to find your niche and fill in. But, it is a hard prospect. We tried to help everyday. But when disasters are happening; it is all about first responders. What we discovered was that our primary role was in the aftermath. The pathology department at the university became involved and we supported them through reference, literature searches, etc… The psychiatry department also was very active dealing with the aftermath of the disaster. The work that was done after the attack turned into numerous research projects. The university departments became first-hand experts with valuable knowledge for communities that had suffered due to terrorist attacks. Our people have been around the world helping others and the library has always been involved with supporting these efforts.

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

In conjunction with the Metropolitan Library System, we started offering courses on disaster response. We also became very involved with the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. Initially, we helped them build up their collection of health resource. But since then, we have established a decade-long working relationship with their library director, Brad Robison. He made me realize that we had never reached out to the first responder market. Brad worked to create databases to help responders in their work. As an indirect result of this disaster, we discovered a new market of first responders as library clients.

From a grant offered by the CDC, the Southwest Center for Preparedness was opened and is now located on the university campus. We have done a lot of direct training for the center.

The attack changed research directions for the entire campus. And, as a result, the library now collects more in the areas of emergency medicine, disaster planning, response, recovery, grief counseling, etc… In the weeks and months after the attack, we saw victims’ families coming into the library looking for information. This was just another indication of how dramatically our user group had changed.

The changes to our collections and services inspired an awareness that the library didn’t have before. Tornadoes are a regular occurrence in Oklahoma and now we are ready for them. We have learned to prepare for natural disasters that are likely to happen in our area; and we’re doing what we can to avoid being caught off-guard and to help other institutions do the same. But, as much as we can predict and plan, real preparedness is more about attitude than anything else.

One of my favorite stories about libraries helping was from Lee Brawner who was the director of the Metropolitan Library System (he has since passed away). We called him the “Consummate Library Director.” After the attacks, a church just north of the library headquarters was being used as a morgue. First responders were facing horrible and grisly work pulling bodies out of the rubble and bringing them to the church. Lee asked the responders what he could do to help. They told him that they needed a place to wash their dogs. Lee took care of it right away; he offered the staff lounge and the shower room at the library. It became the refuge for those responders. It was a place to relax, away from the mayhem. They could just wash their dogs and sit in peace.

Lee’s story isn’t about being at the site, acting the hero. It was about doing what you could, about being on the periphery and finding a way to offer effective help, even in the most non-traditional ways.

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

Teaching is the first role that comes to mind. My first class was organized with Brad Robison at the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism and the Southwest Center for Preparedness (with some financial support from the CDC). We taught Bioterrorism 101, which is now called “Disaster Planning.” I teach people that it doesn’t make a difference what the disaster is; you have to learn to cope with the unexpected. I’m not a “paper person.” I don’t think that a manual on a shelf is going to be much help when the time comes. Preparedness is more about knowing what you can do and how you can react. Recently, I became very frustrated with my night students. Instead of reacting during a tornado warning, they called to find out what to do. I told them to get below ground and to take the patrons downstairs. They all knew what to do, but they needed instructions. Real preparedness teaches us to act, not to wait around for someone else to tell you what to do.

In our classes, we present situations and ask the students what to do. If you were to ask me, I would tell you that my first priority is to take care of the staff. Then work on reestablishing the library. This is a lesson I learned from Lee: the library is an important constant for the community. Let them know that you are OK; and it will give them the confidence to move forward.

One of our scenarios involves an infectious outbreak in the community. The first reaction is always to go home. But, we have to think about opening again and establishing normalcy. Library is the touchstone and we set the tone for the campus.

Librarians have to know who to call; know who is in charge; know what to do. They have to be able to answer questions like: where are the freezers for the books?

A lot of the people that you need to know in a disaster won’t be part of your everyday lives (police, fire people, maintenance, etc…). However, they become immediately important in a disaster. It is very important to change your normal routine and get to know these people.

After the bombing, there was a heightened sense of awareness. People were really excited about teaching disaster planning. But then there was a drought for many years. People forget when everything returns to normal. It would seem that we all need some event to wake us up. However, now is the time for revival and retraining.

Tulane University Medical Library, Louisiana

William (Bill) D. Postell Jr., Director of the Tulane University Medical Library, talks about Hurricane Katrina, which directly affected the academic health sciences library in August 2005.

Interview date: June 25th, 2007


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

Hurricane Katrina had passed and three of my staff members were still in New Orleans. I suppose they thought the worse was over; and most everyone in the city was lulled into a sense of security in the hours before the levees broke. When the terrible flooding began, the three of them all sought refuge in the medical center. Each of them had to travel between two and three miles to get there. Two of them made it and one of them didn’t. One rode in on a bike with his wife. Another managed to get there on foot. The third drowned. He was a library assistant; we called his position a “porter,” and he had been with the library for 37 years. His mother and his teenaged son both lived with him. They evacuated the city and he decided to stay behind.

All of my staff members knew to check in. The lack of communication from my porter was a signal. I knew something was dreadfully wrong when he failed to get in touch.

A forensics lab was set up with experts to identify the bodies. My porter had a university identification card, but that was his only ID. We were initially called because of his ID, but the final confirmation came a full four months later. It was a terrible loss.

One month after the storm, I was back in the city as part of one of the earlier waves back. My brother-in-law was a building contractor. He helped get me into the city when security was still tight. There was a sense that the response was thrown together at the last minute. No one knew what to do. People were making up rules as they went. And the rumors about the city were just wild! When I went through security, the personnel asked if I was armed. When I said yes, the guard replied, “good,” and let me through. But the level of lawlessness was nowhere near as high as it was reported. That the death toll was as low as 1700 was remarkable.

The change to the landscape and to the city was just awful; the devastation was immense. It looked like a battle zone. My home is smack dab in the middle of the city. Contrary to public opinion, not all of New Orleans is below sea level. But, my house was very low and it filled with seven and a half feet of water. The lower half of the house was completely destroyed.

Even though the students were gone, my library was being used as a dormitory by hospital and medical school staff and faculty in the aftermath of the storm. Despite there being nearly three feet of water above street level, the university hospital was still running. The medical school is connected to the Tulane Hospital via an overhead bridge. Staff members who were on the ground helped with patients at the hospital. Tulane’s patients were evacuated via helicopter, then staff and physicians, then everyone else. The Charity Hospital, located right across the street (but not accessible by bridge), was not so lucky. Their patients were essentially abandoned. As the water started to recede, the National Guard brought Charity patients over to Tulane via truck.

As of today, some of the city is still deserted. Rebuilding will take a long, long time. Luckily, the level of damage at the library was not too severe. The medical library is on the second floor but we also manage a public access computer lab on the first floor. Fortunately, two people who were there during the storm helped maintenance and security to move the computers up to the library on the second floor. Staff saved any other records that they could grab and brought them up to the second floor. There was a big fear of mold in the building. A team came through to look at the ventilation system and then they returned to the library mid January, 2006. At that time we were given the OK to return to the library; it was nearly 6 months after the storm.

Hurricane Katrina was unique in many ways. It would be false to make too many comparisons to other storms, like the ones that happen annually in Florida. In New Orleans, the water didn’t have an escape route. It became trapped and needed to be pumped out. It is almost a blessing when the water recedes quickly because it leaves a clean landscape. New Orleans suffered greatly because of the length of time that the water filled the city. People couldn’t respond because the city became impenetrable.

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

Eighteen of my staff members had evacuated the city and I was in Houston. I’m a native of New Orleans and I’ve been through many hurricane seasons. For the most part, evacuations were well planned in advance. However, others were not so lucky or well-prepared. People ended up roaming around the south for weeks. A lot of them were sheltered by churches along the way. The church groups were amazing; across the whole region, their level of response was astonishing.

I found out about the flooding the morning the levees broke. And I was contacted by one of the university officers of administration quite quickly. The sharing of cell phones was going on between senior officers. Ten other administrators and I were invited to a meeting at the home of the president of Baylor’s College of Medicine. There, we were de-briefed on the status of Tulane.

I was constantly trying to call all of my staff members to find out where they were. My node for cell phone service was New Orleans (504). My advice for people developing disaster plans is to get a cell phone with a “safe” area code. All the re-routing equipment for 504 was destroyed. I was able to get through one out of three times in the first week.

A comprehensive list with all the staff and all of their phone numbers was prepared beforehand and kept up-to-date through constant revisions. But, we did not have remote contact information (friend or family outside of the area). Now, we include information about one person close by and one more than 150 miles outside. University communications were down for quite a while and alternative methods had to be established. IT staff was very good at getting people to set up backup email accounts (Yahoo, Gmail, etc…). Within 10 days, they had found everybody and had backup emails in place for communications. One third of Tulane’s people were not traveling with lap tops. However, the provision of public access to computers was excellent.

A total of four staff members were in Houston with me. During the post-Katrina recovery period, Tulane’s Medical School was sheltered by Baylor College of Medicine and the School of Public Health was hosted by the University of Texas School of Public Health. The city of Houston and their academic institutions really came to the aid of the people of New Orleans and the students, faculty and staff of Tulane.

The Tulane people who were in Houston joined the staff of HAM (Houston Academy of Medicine) and worked to support the medical school which was there for a whole year. The librarians and other displaced workers did as much as possible to relieve the burden on HAM.

Library people who were on the ground in New Orleans helped in many “non-traditional ways.” Those who were at the medical school helped to evacuate patients from the hospital. They assisted in every kind of physical and surgical procedure you can imagine. The hospital workers were completely exhausted after two days. Anyone available was called in to help.

Many of Tulane’s people who stayed in New Orleans ended up working or studying with the Ochsner Health System (a large hospital group). Some of the librarians at the Houston Academy of Medicine went to help out at the evacuation centers in Texas. But, the magnitude of the destruction in New Orleans made it impossible to respond in the same way. The infrastructure had completely collapsed. People could not return for weeks and weeks. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced across the south.

I spoke with vendors and found them to be very cooperative. They provided free access for Tulane people who could not connect through the university servers. We now have duplicate, off-site servers to help serve displaced users. Some vendors were hesitant because the whole situation was so strange. But, in less than a day, they were calling back with solutions.

I returned to the library at Tulane on December 17th, 2005. We ended up operating out of a conference room in an adjacent building. But we were still able to serve our users remotely. The students came back to the school in June, 2006. The library returned to regular service at that time. Faculty came back piece by piece. We lost one quarter of the faculty because the university couldn’t afford to keep everyone anymore. The library lost one third of our staff. Despite these cutbacks, the student body stayed the same and we needed to find ways to continue serving them as before.

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

In terms of service and resources, we have made significant collection changes. Prior to Katrina, 65% of our collection was online. Once communications were working again, we could operate remotely and still serve our users. And it was possible because so much of the collection was online. Katrina taught us a lesson about serving a displaced group of users. We are now about 95% online. To be honest, we didn’t really see a need for print resources at the time or afterwards. You couldn’t get around the city anyways, so print was out of the question. People adapted to use what they could.

Physical traffic in the library had been in decline before the storm in any rate. Our gate count was going down, so were our circulation statistics, ILL requests, etc… The numbers diminished ever further after Katrina. Many reasons contributed to the changing patterns of use. Remote access meant that libraries could operate in an automated mode. The technology has altered the library experience. But the decreased foot traffic meant that our reduced staff was able to cope.

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

At the time, our staff continued to fill professional roles at a distance. There was an effective working radius from Houston through a huge semi-circle around the coast. Everyone was pitching in from all over. Libraries were used for a lot of non-health-sciences related activities: finding families, filling out insurance forms, etc… Public libraries were very good at providing for people with basic computing needs.

Our physical library became a base of operations for the security force. The staff lounge became the armory; our fax line in the conference room was heavily used as it was one of the longest functioning phone lines in the whole facility. To a great extent, the physical location was commandeered for other purposes, but library services were able to continue because of the prevalence of electronic information resources.

Librarians can help support these services by building redundancies into the system. We need to build backups into all of our data. The issue of maintaining access has overshadowed preservation of paper. We don’t have to protect the paper anymore.

But the primary issue was getting people out well in advance. Our contact lists are now much deeper than they were before. Along with the contact information, we learned other lessons that have been essential in rebuilding. Many institutions have moved to higher ground. Electrical systems have also moved to higher levels in the buildings. Institutions are drilling their own wells so that they can get their own water supply.

Needs were very basic. Consumer health and public health issues were vitally important: basic sanitation, disease control, housing, and clean water, etc… The situation was akin to a mission to a third world country. People were concentrating on survival.

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


(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!

Houston Academy of Medicine, Texas Medical Center Library

Dr. Elizabeth Eaton, Director of the Houston Academy of Medicine, Texas Medical Center Library in Houston, Texas discusses the effects of Hurricane Katrina and flooding at the academic health sciences library in 2005.

Interview date:

June 5th, 2007


(1.) What happened in your community (i.e., what was the disaster/emergency) and how did your library respond?

Between August 31st and September 4th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast including New Orleans. Many thousands of the evacuees were brought to the two large conventions center in Houston: the George R. Brown (5,000) and the Reliant Center (11,000). The evacuees arrived several days after the levies broke. They came with the clothes on their backs, sans prescriptions, no medical records, no schools records. The convention center grouped the arrivals by families, single male, single female. The facility was clean, accommodated all for sleeping, eating, medical, computer stations, clothing selection, and school study areas for the students. The two medical schools opened medical centers to treat the evacuees. Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) ran the Reliant medical center; The University of Texas Health Sciences Center-Houston, the George R. Brown Medical Center. The UT Dental School moved their mobile van into the GR Brown Convention Center. We heard about this arrangement and immediately found the UTH organizer. The Library supplied needed information to the George R. Brown medical triage area. It took several visits, the first to inquire about their information needs. The physicians were volunteers and worked shifts. They saw a random assortment of patients. One Internal Medicine physician said he wanted infectious disease texts, another said he wanted the PDR, another wanted access to the library’s online journals. We engaged our serials librarian and the IT Systems person. The Convention Center had an IP address, all we had to do was locate the person who knew it and receive permission to give it to vendors to allow access from the convention center. In all cases, the vendors gave us 30-60 days permission from machines we identified at the convention center.

September, 2005: Hurricane Rita, the second Class 5 Hurricane in the Gulf heading toward Houston resulted in mass evacuation of Houston and the surrounding communities. The Library battened down the hatches and evacuated the premise from Wednesday to the following Monday. Fortunately no damage was inflicted upon Houston.

(2.) How did the library support the regional community of health information professionals?

2005 August 31-Sept 4 Hurricane Katrina

Houston watched as Hurricane Katrina wrecked havoc with New Orleans. LA is in our NNLM (National Network of the Libraries of Medicine) SCR (South Central Region), the academic health sciences libraries and the hospital libraries in New Orleans were flooded; Oschner Hospital was surrounded by water but remained open, with a helicopter pad on the roof. The worse part for all of us was not knowing where the LSU and Tulane staff had gone. The NNLM SCR staff within 60 days had contacted all affected libraries and determined their needs and what the costs would be. Contacting persons and confirming that they were OK was a lengthy and arduous procedure. Home phones were down, work phones down and many cell towers inoperable. We contacted friends of friends and NNLM SCR set up a blog which was a great way to deliver and receive information. We were on the phone to the SER (South Eastern Region) as well, trying to assess damage in Alabama and Mississippi.

Within a week of the flood, the entire Tulane Medical School, including faculty, staff, residents and medical students were relocated to BCM, one of the two medical schools which we serve. So while the NNLM SCR stayed with the project of polling all members, assessing damage and prioritizing services needed, the Library staff was welcoming yet another medical school to its services. We phoned vendors trying to include the Tulane medical students as our students for assessing resources. The Tulane students had dual resources, those already paid for by Tulane and also this Library’s online resources. The vendors agreed to allow Tulane students, staff, residents and faculty access from our IP addresses. The Tulane Medical School Library Director and a librarian who had relocated to Houston were given desks and became members of our Library staff while helping their students. Although the move of Tulane to Houston was not prearranged, the BCM faculty and staff accommodated them and made the transition smooth. Medical School classes began 3 weeks after the storm; Tulane faculty taught their medical school classes; residents were placed in appropriate units.

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

Now, we have much better emergency numbers sharing. All cell phone numbers are shared with key people and departments. Email accounts with a national carrier (Yahoo!, Google, AOL, etc…) are encouraged for all staff, as one can usually use the national email if local and home computers are unable to function.

To ensure continuing online access, we have co-located our authentication server and have encouraged the region’s libraries to do the same.

We updated and reviewed the disaster plan, re-stocked emergency supplies and prepared vendors’ contact information. Those details will be available and we will contact them ASAP. We have agreed ahead of time on the process for accessing information during such emergencies.

We worked with community libraries, the city, and TMC (Texas Medical Center) to be better integrated into the emergency response teams.

What became crystal clear after Katrina and Rita is that it is most important to evacuate. Leaving early is the priority – in front of moving furniture, computers or even putting plastic sheeting on books, stacks, etc…

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

Librarians’ roles are to be absolutely in charge of the library. Do not even dream that you will have help. ‘All we have is ourselves.’ Some staff members do not want to participate in recovery and that has to be known in advance.

Librarians must be integrated into the local and regional disaster preparedness and recovery operations. We have knowledge, space and can help in many non traditional ways.

Librarians’ roles are also to collect contact information. Keep all home email address in your emergency manuals. Try and have as many regional and national numbers as possible. Librarians should also keep records of everything before, during and after the flood. FEMA demand receipts.

The role of National programs, such as GoLocal, should be emphasized. The sister-system of RMLs (Regional Medical Libraries) is absolutely vital. In the SCR (South Central Region), the network sponsored a disaster seminar that raised awareness. We encouraged more seminars on regional levels. The NNLM played a key role in promoting awareness at the regional and national levels. The network and the National Library of Medicine need to continue their leadership in promoting preparedness.

In every disaster, the needs are different. But, money will always be needed by the institutions affected. The willingness of vendors to allow for permissions will always be needed. National and regional efforts are required to enable quick response on behalf of the vendor community. Access should be available to wherever the point of care happens to be. Librarians can aid in the provision of these service.

Since Katrina, TMC Inc. (Texas Medical Center, Incorporated) forged a relationship between the medical library and disaster agencies. Now, the agencies will think of the library. The next step will be to get ingrained with the city planning force. The library is much more visible now and they expect to be called. Staying connected with the city is critical. Librarians should be out of the library, making contacts and connections.

Rowland Medical Library, University of Mississippi Medical Center

Ada Seltzer, Director of the Rowland Medical Library at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi, talks about Hurricane Katrina and its direct impacts on the academic health sciences library in August 2005.

Interview date: June 1st, 2007


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

Jackson, Mississippi was on the fringe of the area that was hit by hurricane Katrina. For the most part, we were directly impacted through the loss of our electricity. It took 11 days for it to be completely restored throughout the Jackson Metro area. We also suffered from a gasoline shortage which began 4 or 5 days after the storm. The medical center had to declare a day of emergency because people couldn’t get to work. Only essential hospital employees were required to come into work. Gas was being sent by truck between Jackson and Hattiesburg, which was a very hard hit area. Transportation became a huge problem. It took 12 hours to clear one lane of US Highway 49. Then it remained closed except to emergency vehicles. With so much debris on the roads (and no gas to fuel the vehicles to remove the debris) it took a long time for the roads to open again. Grocery stores were all closed. There was a shortage of ice, although we were alright for water. The fuel scarcity became a serious problem and we certainly learned a lesson to prepare for gas shortages in the future.

Things got worse and worse as you traveled down towards the coast. There was more devastation than anyone could have imagined. There was total devastation from the coastline north for about 3-5 blocks and up to Interstate 10 at certain areas. The storm just left slabs. There was no mail service until November on the coast. In the worst hit areas, they were without Internet until November; cell phones weren’t back until October. Police departments were wiped out, so were fire departments. People walked to shelters and tents set up by the Department of Health, Red Cross and the CDC.

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

In preparation for the storm, we notified the NN/LM SE/A RML (National Network of the Libraries of Medicine, Southeastern/Atlantic Region, Regional Medical Library) in Baltimore. We made arrangements to divert loans and notified other libraries in the Southern Chapter that we would be unable to send interlibrary loans (ILL). We closed on Monday at 10:00 am, opened on Wednesday, and began loan service again the next Monday.

Then we began focusing on helping the coast. We contacted the Mississippi Library Commission, which coordinates public library service for the state. We offered to give free loans until December for any library on the coast (in fact, we are still offering free ILL). In total, we only had 50 ILL requests. It became clear to us that the human need was too great and that traditional library materials weren’t needed.

By the third week we tried to telephone every hospital to find out what their status was; we were able to reach 5 of the 11. The hospitals had damage, but their libraries and collections were mainly intact.

We contacted the Mississippi Hospital Association and asked what we could do. By this time, they had traveled down to the hospitals on the coast and knew the statuses of the 11 hospitals. They shared those with us and the names of the administrators.

Jackson hosted a lot of evacuees from the coast and from New Orleans. The Medical Center set up emergency clinics in the coliseum where there was a Red Cross shelter for four weeks. The infectious disease experts from the Department of Medicine manned a clinic every day. They distributed information as needed, whatever patient materials they had on hand.

The library did not have a role and I think that was because the need for basic necessities was so great. There was an outpouring of donations and volunteers came from all over the country. Actually, managing donated materials became a huge problem. Waveland Public Library, for example, is still operating out of a trailer and they don’t have the capacity to store all of the donated books that they received. People sent everything they could find. Several librarians volunteered to help sort and unload these donations in big warehouses (with no air-conditioning). One of the Lutheran churches became headquarters for receiving donations and Jackson became a central distribution point. There were just so many items; and unless materials were labeled in boxes, they couldn’t be handled. It was an important lesson for future disasters: if you are going to send donations, label and organize them beforehand! The sorting continued until November when the Red Cross closed down operations.

Other library volunteers supported Red Cross and The Salvation Army. Others donated to the State Fund and to churches. The church groups were very important assistance providers – particularly when the Red Cross started to withdraw after eight weeks in the region. FEMA started packing up shortly after, and evacuees were sent to church-run shelters. Religious organizations gave food and shelter to many, many people. They organized book drives for the devastated libraries which have continued even two years later.

The library at the Gulf Coast Research Lab was significantly damaged. They received a grant from NN/LM to help with the recovery. Many other institutions received similar funding. An earlier grant from NLM helped to start a state wide electronic network called MisHIN (Mississippi Health Sciences Information Network) which was created at the Rowland Medical Library. MisHIN is a fee based service which gives electronic access to licensed health sciences information for health care practitioners. In the aftermath of Katrina, the library organized access to MisHIN for hospitals, health professionals and organizations, and the state health department through these Katrina-assistance NN/LM grants. The grants covered the cost of subscriptions and the training fees. Trainers were sent from Rowland Medical Library. I also helped to promote the availability of other NN/LM Katrina Relief Awards through hospital associations and other related organizations. NN/LM had wanted to supply lap tops 2 weeks after the storm, but they couldn’t be used at that time. Grants and awards seemed to be a much more effective means of providing assistance months after the storm.

Public libraries in Jackson, and elsewhere in Mississippi, had a presence in the evacuation shelters. I know of a local public library that distributed donated books to the evacuees. People were told to keep the books or to pass them along. The libraries’ efforts were very well received.

I contacted the Mississippi Library Commission and volunteered to put together consumer health information packets. I waited for a response to my questions about what people were asking for in the way of health information. I wanted to know what the public libraries needed before sending anything out, but I never heard back. After the fact, I did find out from the clinics what was needed. Next time we will just take them down. However, finding room in the shelters is a problem we will have to address.

As a speaker at the Florida Health Sciences Library Association, I shared information about Katrina’s effect on Mississippi. Currently, I am serving on the Federal Grand Jury and am taking the opportunity to travel down to the coast to see if there are any more needs that the library can fill. For me, this is still a work in progress and there is much left to do.

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

Since Katrina, we have been updating our web site with information about disasters and common health issues that arise as a result (i.e., Vibrio Vulnificus Infections) and which may not be well known to health providers. But, we may not have the capability to produce the amount of pamphlets and patient brochures to be distributed at evacuation shelters. Supplies and aid may be needed from NLM and the NN/LM to facilitate the distribution of consumer health information in a disaster situation. We also need help identifying which information packets are needed. And every disaster is different. For example, a tornado could require information on blood poisoning, whereas a flood or an earthquake or a hurricane could require completely different information depending on circumstance. Outreach is also required on behalf of the librarian to discover what is needed in the community.

But medical librarians need to recognize that the politics are complicated; we have been incredibly naïve when it comes to this point. There is a risk that we will be stepping on toes by insisting that we have a crucial part to play. I plan on treading lightly and to take things slowly. I intend to work as a collaborator and always to stay conscious of the politics of disaster response. Health sciences libraries have not been as realistic as state and public libraries. We have a lot to learn from them.

More lessons have been learned regarding our role as a provider of electronic information. We will be more pro-active about putting information on off-site servers and publicizing these new URLs. Also, we will promote our facility as a welcome place for people seeking computer access.

As for protecting collection, we have learned to engage salvage companies ahead of time. Planning for future disasters will also involve SOLINET (Southeastern Library Network) because they have directories and names of agencies that will freeze books.

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

Librarians have a glorified view of their roles in disaster response. Katrina wasn’t about ILL or reference services. The CDC was able to use their laptops via satellite They were using online information resources provided by their own field workers. They were connected with the health department and had their own sources of information; they certainly didn’t need us.

I have sat on the university’s committee for creating an institution wide disaster plan. The library wasn’t really on the radar for the institution and a lot of people didn’t understand why I was there at all.

Even though I feel strongly that we do not have a first responder role, I came to the realization after Katrina that we have a secondary responder role to provide consumer health information. I have since been working to become involved with emergency planning agencies and to promote the role of libraries as providers of consumer health information after a disaster. I would like to find out where consumer health fits in with other responder groups. Should we be working with the Salvation Army? Or the state health agencies? We need to find our place.

There are many conditions and illnesses which arise out of a disaster situation which may be unfamiliar to health providers. Bacteria can come from contaminated water and debris. Respiratory illnesses can result from mold, mildew and dust. Infectious disease can arise from crowding in shelters and improper sanitation. And sometimes challenges can result from patients with chronic illness being unable to receive needed treatments or medications. These are all areas where consumer health information packets could help. In the future, we will provide easier access to this information. And this role can be coordinated through emergency organizations who do not want to assume the extra responsibility for health information.

Librarians also have a role aiding the recovery of other library institutions. We can provide loans of materials to help serve distant communities. And we can help to rebuild collections. Many libraries (especially public and state libraries) needed extra computers because they were helping so many evacuees with online forms, like those required by FEMA. Library networks and NLM could help facilitate the distribution of needed computers.

And, as many public libraries have shown, libraries have a role in the shelters. They can set up computers, help people with forms, and distribute books and other information right at the site where people need them the most.

Organizing and distributing information through the web is another way that we can help. We have created electronic literature guides to emergency/disaster preparedness and bioterrorism materials. We have also posted a special disaster relief section to our consumer health website. The pages have links to the health department, the CDC, and all kinds of emergency agencies. We also included links to health information about conditions which were common after the hurricane (Vibrio Vulnificus, for example).

Consumer health is “our niche,” and the best situation would involve first responders reporting back to us what information is needed on the ground. I have certainly learned the lesson that you have to find out what is needed before you begin providing.

Department of Library Science and Informatics at the Medical University of South Carolina

Tom Basler, Director of Libraries and Learning Resources Centers and Chairman on the Department of Library Science and Informatics at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, South Carolina, discusses hurricanes, flooding, civil unrest, and radiological and toxicological events at the library.

Interview date: May 31st, 2007


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

South Carolina has hosted three different kinds of disasters/emergencies: hurricanes, flooding and civil unrest. A fourth type could also be added: radiological and toxicological events.

Hurricane Hugo was the worst storm in recent memory, but there are warnings all the time. I wasn’t there at the time; but I know a lot about Hugo through second hand sources.

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

The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) Library is in a very central location between research and hospital areas. My staff serves a wide user community.

During the civil unrest and the 1980s hospital strike, the library concentrated on securing the building and making sure that their staff and patrons were safe.

In a hurricane, the library tries to do basically the same things. But, flooding generally occurs with a hurricane or storm; the two go hand-in-hand. In Charleston, the water comes up and the wind comes down. But the water stays. In preparation for the inevitable flooding, no collections are housed below the second floor. Planning has also resulted in changes to the electrical system; the library is now on the back-up electrical system for the hospital. Computer technicians (OCIO) at MUSC have ensured that data is backed-up and protected.

But, hurricanes provide the best example of library response. In preparation for a hurricane, the library informs their patrons by posting information on the library web-site. They also provide links to MUSC’s Emergency Page. At times, the library has served as a “gathering or command center.” In one instance, foreign students sought shelter in the library while they waited for buses to evacuate.

Library staff prepare by gathering the necessary supplies (plastic bags, clean-up materials, flash-lights, batteries, etc…). Librarians have been given emergency permission to be on campus. The library has prepared information resources that include emergency staff telephone contacts. This “calling tree” is constantly being updated. They also gathered key contact information for the university – weather, public safety, computer center information, etc… Further, they prepared a list of potential locations for staff during a storm that gives information about family members too.

Digital photographs have been taken of key equipment and emergency settings for micro-labs, servers, etc… The photographs show how the wires look and how things are placed. They have been very helpful.

The library developed staff leaving procedures. The procedures are very detailed and include a countdown of events. They outline when the micro labs and classrooms can be shut down, what order staff members can leave (Tech Services are first, Systems and the Info Desk are last). But they also outline exceptions. Some staff live in “vulnerable” areas. These include the beach, high-flood zones, over bridges that will “officially” close to traffic. Staff who live in these high risk areas, and those with children are the first to go. I remember flying into Miami during a hurricane when I worked there in the 1960s. I had to decide whether to go to work to help out or to go home. It was a hard decision. But, the right thing is to take care of your family. People come first. So, the first priority for the library is to evacuate the staff. Collections are left in place with no coverage or protection. Computers are moved and then protected with plastic coverings.

During the storm, servers are kept live as long as possible. Contact numbers provide information on personnel needed to restart them. I’m working to get a substitute URL which will provide access when the main library site goes down.

I remember being told that reference questions jumped after Hugo. But, that was in the pre-web area; other forms of information just weren’t available.

The plan is to completely evacuate all staff and all users. Physical access to the campus is denied until the “all clear” message is received. Library is now part of the Emergency Information Telephone System. The “first person in” relays “first findings” to key staff.

In the past, the library has served after a crisis as a “digging out center.” The library was a place that could function. They were connected. They were open.

But, in one case, the library had some unexpected problems to deal with as a result of the water damage. Years ago, the library suffered from water in the walls and floors. Moths ended up infesting the whole building, including the air conditioning system. They were everywhere! Exterminators had to come and take care of the moth infestation.

After the storm, the library was instrumental in forcing the computer center to make plans for future disasters. Planning at the university started with Hugo. At the time, all of the university records were backed up on tapes, which were housed on site. When Hugo was about to hit, Steve Burns from the computer center grabbed all of the tapes and put them in the back of his van and started driving away from the storm. Unluckily, Steve drove in the wrong direction and the storm chased him for hours. In the end, the tapes were saved and his actions saved the university records. But, the experience taught the university a valuable lesson. Now, all of their copies are kept out of town.

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

The library has recognized two values and how they’ve changed. The first is the value of collections. MUSC library is not a “library of record,” and they will not replace lost paper collections. They are, however, a utility. And the second value is that of electronic connections and e-resources. They must stay online at all times. The key is to be “up,” and to stay up during preparation, during evacuation, through times when everyone is away, upon return and digging out, and upon return to regular business.

Also, in realizing that the library is the common gathering point for students before the disaster, the library put up a hurricane watch on their website. Collected statistics suggest that this site is also being used outside of the university community as well. In general, MUSC’s website is more open than other university’s. In fact, 10-15% of users were coming in from outside of South Carolina.

More is being done on the web. For example, the library’s community health web site, Hands on Health, (which includes a GoLocal component) has an emergency section with consumer health information about hurricanes and other disasters.

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

Libraries and librarians have both primary and secondary roles. Primary roles are to keep the e-resources available, get the microcomputer labs, classrooms, and testing centers operational ASAP, and get the study-hall values back ASAP.

Secondary roles are more varied and wide-reaching. The library serves as “gathering,” “command” centers (as in the case of foreign students waiting for a bus out of town) both before and after the disaster event. Library always starts to fill up during a hurricane. The library can also be a “sorting-out place” for others (as in the case of people who need Internet access to fill out insurance type forms). Further, the library can act as a computer use area for all staff, students and others in need of a communication port.

The library also houses staff that cannot function in their own areas. And librarians serve during and after the storm in areas of expertise.

Another secondary role is in the area of outreach to the community. Librarians can train preparedness to promote community self-sufficiency.

The reality is that people “don’t think library.” I feel that people should get used to the library first. Then, the library has the responsibility “to be there” during the crisis. People will think to go there, because they already know what the library can provide.

The librarian’s first reaction is personal, then professional, then community oriented. Individuals begin to act as individuals during a disaster. An example is Doug Blands from Georgia Tech. He was able to stay and help with the animals because he had that expertise and availability. He was acting as an individual, not as a librarian. Librarians may just be the type of people who would volunteer anyways.

But, it also depends on the disaster. In the case of a hurricane, there isn’t a lot that librarians can do as professionals. But, if the case were a biological attack then the answer would be different. South Carolina is one of the more “nuclear” places in the world. The library has done a lot with Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The library brings in grants and contracts to provide information about environmental health information.

MUSC library also provides information support to the Agro-Medicine Program. In one case, an emergency room doctor called from Greensville. They had received two patients who had been bringing a truckload of peat moss from Canada. The patients had passed out and the doctor wanted to know that cause. Was it something to do with the peat moss? No. Turned out that the cause was the change in temperature coupled with their poor lungs.

I also see a role for librarians in maintaining e-resources through alternate networks. What is the point of paying for all of this proprietary information when you can only access them from the library’s web pages? What if the server goes down? How can we continue providing information if access is entirely based on IP address? It is a problem I would like more people to address. This question of URL displacement will require vendors and libraries to work together. Some possible solutions include: providing passwords for libraries that loose their connectivity, setting up a regional network of e-resources, and creating a fall back center for the institution.

Additional Questions:

(5.) Was there any contact with other emergency agencies, organizations or groups?

For hurricanes, the answer is no. The library has never been on the radar for emergency agencies. But, in a sense, the library is serving them by feeding people to their websites via the library portal.

But, in the case of environmental health issues, then yes. The library works often with EPA, Department of Energy, CDC, and the Department of Commerce.

In fact, many years ago, the library was asked by the Department of Energy to put together a one-stop program that would search multiple databases on environmental health. It was designed for cases like a tritium spill outside a bomb plant. Questions it was designed to answer were: What does the chemical do? What counteracts it? How do you respond in the short term? It was called the One Door Access System (ODAS). Unfortunately, ODAS died because it wasn’t on the web. But it was the impetus for other systems like it.