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Tulane University Medical Library, Louisiana

Monday, June 25th, 2007

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.

Louisiana State University, School of Library and Information Sciences

Friday, June 8th, 2007

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


(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.

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

Thursday, June 7th, 2007

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.

Houston Academy of Medicine, Texas Medical Center Library

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

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!