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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.

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