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University of California San Diego

Julie Page, Head of the Preservation Department at the Geisel Library at the University of California San Diego, talks about the flood that affected the neighboring academic library at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in October 2004 and the library’s participation in the recovery efforts.

Interview date: June 1st , 2007


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

I was called in to help the University of Hawaii at Manoa when a flash flood caused a stream to jump its banks in the hills above the campus. The flood affected the medical and science buildings and their labs and around 20 other buildings including the library. The first floor library building was below grade and it completely filled with water. Water poured into one side of the building and out the other. Inside, the water sloshed around like a washing machine.

The library had a disaster plan but the university did not. It took them a long time to get back on their feet. Everything took forever; it took two and a half months for generators to get hooked up to provide power to the four story library building that was affected. Getting supplies and services to the island was difficult and time consuming. About 25 staff members were displaced from their offices and work spaces. Luckily, aside from the university campus, there was very little damage done to the rest of the community.

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

The University Librarian at UC San Diego was well-known to the library administration at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He offered assistance right away. During the first week, the library staff salvaged as much as they could of the collection. I went over to help out 15 days after the flooding occurred. Observing the disaster first hand provided me with on-the-ground experience in a disaster situation. But, before that point, they weren’t ready to deal with the myriad of insurance, psychological, and preservation issues; they needed time to get back on their feet.

Initially, I was there for four days and then went back two months later. I was sent back to help the University Librarian. It was a complicated situation since there were problems to deal with on both the campus level and the library level. To some extent, the library had been overlooked. I went back to UHM two and a half years later to take part in follow-up assessments of the recovery and evaluation of affected materials. A big plus was that the Preservation Librarian used the UHM experiences as a learning experience to be shared with the rest of the preservation community – through articles, symposia, and other collaborative efforts.

The expectation at first was that I would help to deal with the insurance issues. Priority materials had been put in freezers; luckily the library had established priorities ahead of time. They were only able to salvage about 15% of the first floor collections. Maps and photographs and some book collections were saved. They focused their attention on preserving priority materials important to the campus and Pacific region.

Cargo container freezer storage was acquired from Matson (shipping company) as soon as possible, in accordance with the library disaster plan. There were five large freezers parked around the library for several weeks. Then Matson wanted their containers back. The university kept one cargo freezer with materials that they were going to preserve in their own conservation lab. Many other objects had to be moved to cold storage, and I helped them evaluate and transfer the materials. The disaster recovery company BELFOR, headquartered in Ft. Worth, TX was hired to handle the recovery of the priority materials including setting protocols for treatment, shipping from Hawaii to Texas, vacuum freeze drying and cleaning the maps, photographs and books, as well as shipping them back to Hawaii.

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

The university learned a couple of important lessons. The first was never to keep collections on first floors, in basements, or in below-grade buildings. The second was about leadership. If you don’t have enough administrative depth — not enough people at the higher levels — it is very challenging to make good decisions in a crisis. You do the best you can, with the information and staff you have. You need a strong leader and administrative depth. In general, they discovered the importance of flexibility. In order to deal with any disaster event, you need to be capable of constantly evaluating and changing your course of action.

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

Libraries can offer emergency assistance in their area through regional centers with preservation services. They can also offer training to other institutions to pass on the knowledge for dealing with emergency situations.

Every library should have a disaster plan; the institution should know how it will communicate and what their priorities will be. They should exercise the plans through practice so that they are prepared when the time comes.

Librarians should build relationships with emergency responders and understand ICS (Incident Command System). Collaborations should also be developed with volunteer organizations, particularly those who are distributing medical information. Libraries can help a great deal by establishing communications, developing collaborative relationships, and effectively training staff to respond to an emergency or disaster.

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