November 22, 2017

Katrina-Damaged Libraries Reopen

By Bob Warburton

East New Orleans Regional Library

East New Orleans Regional Library

Officials cut the ribbon on the newly constructed East New Orleans Regional Library last week, the fourth branch to open within a four-week span, and another major step forward in making the New Orleans library system whole again following catastrophic damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

It’s been an almost giddy spring for New Orleans Public Library Executive Director Charles Brown, his branch managers, library staff members and patrons, all of whom had to make do with trailers, bookmobiles and temporary storefront locations while the rebuilding project moved ahead.

Starting March 16, library officials joined civic officials – New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu among them – and neighborhood residents for three ribbon-cutting ceremonies in rapid succession. In order, the Rosa F. Keller Library, the Norman Mayer Library and the Robert E. Smith Library christened brand-new permanent locations.

“We opened three libraries in six days,” Brown told Library Journal last week. “That’s unprecedented.”

But the work is far from over. A fifth branch – the Algiers Regional Library – is slated for a summer opening, perhaps (unintentionally) in time to coincide with Katrina’s seventh anniversary. Algiers has a price tag of $9.2 million for a 28,000-square-foot facility, making it the largest and most expensive of the five resurrected branches. But it’s opening will give New Orleans 13 libraries – the same number it operated before Katrina.

“We have shown it can be done,” Jessica Styons, associate director of branch services, said of the years-long effort to restore New Orleans’ library system to its previous size.

“This is a major event in New Orleans,” Brown added. “I think it has been a demonstration of the vital role that libraries play in the community.”

Just how vital a role? “I think it really hit me on that second opening,” Brown said, referring to the Norman Mayer branch re-opening. It was a rainy Tuesday afternoon, with more severe weather in the forecast, “yet we had several hundred people show up.”

Brown realized it was the permanency of the library building that excited the neighborhood patrons.

“They had a very nice temporary storefront location,” he said. “But they wanted their library back.”

The Keller branch after Hurricane KatrinaThe four newly opened libraries cost a combined $24.6 million to build; most of them completely new state-of-the-art facilities. They replace razed structures previously damaged beyond salvaging by high floodwaters caused when Katrina triggered massive levee breaks in New Orleans. Everyone remembers seeing whole sections of the city under 8 feet or more of water that summer; libraries, along with untold numbers of homes and businesses, were not spared.

Slowly, libraries began the reconstruction effort. The Gates Foundation helped pay for trailers and storefront locations, and most had been in operation for three or four years.

Funds for the five libraries came from four primary sources: Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants, damage reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state Community Development Block Grants and funds from municipal bonds.

It will be many years before memories of libraries left gutted by the floods can be shunted aside, but Brown is thrilled that four modern structures that fit nicely into their respective neighborhoods have been able to rise in their place.

The Robert E. Smith branchRobert E. Smith 

Located at the intersection of two busy thoroughfares, Canal Boulevard and Harrison Avenue, in the city’s Lakeview section, the Robert E. Smith Branch offers about 12,700 square feet in a two-story facility. The national firm of Lee Ledbetter & Associates, which also handled the Norman Mayer Library project, designed it.

The Smith branch opened on March 22, and branch manager Rachael Schultz said it’s impossible to name her favorite amenity at the new site.

“You need to realize, I have been working in a trailer since 2008, so I was just happy to see things like a staff lunchroom, a workroom, an office – basic things that most library people don’t think twice about, but my staff and I have had to do without,” Schultz told Library Journal.

The Smith branch boasts about 40,000 volumes, 17 computers and a self-checkout system, among other amenities. But Schultz says she may be most excited about the children’s area on the main floor.

“I’m still wrapping my mind around the possibilities that the new branch has to offer,” she said. “We have a meeting room now, and a teen zone. Both of those are great. I think I like having a children’s room the most, though. It is fun watching kids play, and we have so many young families in the Lakeview neighborhood, so I get to see a lot of happy kids. This is the generation that will grow up with this library. This will be part of their childhood, their memories. I like the thought of that.”

Rosa Keller branch

Rosa Keller branch

Rosa Keller

Desha Rhodes, branch manager at the newly reopened Rosa Keller Public Library and Community Center, saw her facility open on March 17, but that doesn’t mean all the heavy lifting is done.

“We are still unloading boxes and shifting things around to make sure everything fits,” Rhodes said. The Keller branch consists of two parts totaling about 9,000 square feet. A refurbished one-story bungalow (recognized as a historic home by the city) provides office space, meeting rooms, and an information center and also houses a small café. The brand new addition features self-checkout stations, more than two dozen computers, books and other media available for checkout.

Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, a New Orleans architecture firm, designed the new Keller branch.

“Everyone is enjoying the new facility,” said Rhodes, who works with a staff of six, including four FTEs. “That makes us happy.”

The Norman Mayer branch

The Norman Mayer branch

Norman Mayer

The Norman Mayer Library is conspicuous for its large front windows on each of its two stories. But inside the 18,000-square-foot facility, branch manager Shelly Masog says the library’s main attraction is its 36 computers, which have been busy with job seekers. That facet alone restores a valuable asset that had been missing from the neighborhood; the storefront facility used since 2009 had only a handful of computers.

Business has been brisk, Masog said, as branch patrons have remained excited about the rebuilt branch since its March 22 opening.

“We need some more staff,” Masog joked. “We’re seeing a lot more people than we were at the temporary location.” The Mayer branch currently has a staff of 10, including five full-timers.

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Comments

  1. Katrina was a really damaging hurricane!

  2. This is a beautiful story of hope and renaissance. As a So. Calif. tourist who was stuck in the Superdome during Katrina and the levee failures and who also attended the ALA meeting in NOLA in 2006 I was moved to tears by Anderson Cooper’s keynote address. Clearly people took home his message to not give up, to not forget the lessons, and to rebuild this fine city.

    Paul Harris
    Author, “Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina”