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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.

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