December 17, 2017

Libraries from Puerto Rico to Florida Respond to Hurricane Irma

Downed trees outside the Miami-Dade Public Library System’s Coconut Grove Branch after the storm
Photo courtesy of Miami Dade Public Library System

Arriving hard on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, Irma cut a destructive swath through the northeastern Caribbean and Florida Keys. More than $50 billion worth of damage was reported in the United States, as well as 39 fatalities.

Despite Irma’s size and power, Florida libraries had fewer tales of destruction to relate than their counterparts in Texas did after Harvey. While most larger systems reported some leakage and damage to property, delays in opening were mainly due to lack of electricity or running water or exterior obstructions such as fallen trees and debris.

Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency on September 4, and ordered that all public schools and colleges across the state close from Friday, September 8 through Monday, September 11. Thousands of Floridians evacuated their homes on both coasts and headed north—the largest evacuation in the state’s history.

“We extend our thoughts and prayers to everyone affected by Hurricane Irma,” said American Library Association President Jim Neal in a statement. “We are supporting the Florida Library Association and Florida State Library as they work with local libraries dealing with storm-related damage. We are also coordinating with other states and the Caribbean islands whose libraries were damaged by Irma.”

FLORIDA LIBRARIES REBOUNDING

As Florida residents began to return to their homes in Irma’s wake, they found pockets of hard-hit areas across the state, unlike Harvey’s largely concentrated damages. The Florida Keys, Miami, St. Augustine, Marco Island, Jacksonville, and Naples received the brunt of the storm’s damage. As of September 12, nearly 4.4 million homes and business across the state had lost power.

Many of the larger library systems saw minimal damage, but many smaller and coastal libraries were much harder hit. The Flagler Beach Library, which had been closed since October 2016 because of damage from Hurricane Matthew, had its roof ripped off just three weeks short of its grand reopening.

The Florida Library Association (FLA) will have a report on the condition of libraries statewide around the third week in September, membership and events manager Karen Layton told LJ. In the meantime, FLA has posted its Florida Libraries Rebuild Network, a pair of spreadsheets for libraries in need of help and for offers of assistance to add their information. Those who wish to help can also donate to the Florida Libraries Disaster Relief Fund.

Miami-Dade Public Library System’s Coconut Grove Branch after cleanup
Photo courtesy of Miami Dade Public Library System

Miami-Dade Public Library director Ray Baker reported that all 50 of the Miami-Dade Public Library (MDPL) locations were in good shape, sustaining a few minor roof and window leaks. Downed trees and debris outside the facilities and in parking lots were the most common issues. As power was gradually restored to branches, MDPL was opened 17 of its 50 locations on September 12, and another seven on September 14.

People will be able to charge devices, access the Internet, and use the Wi-Fi, said Baker, as well as using physical materials and keeping cool in the air conditioning—temperatures were in the 90s for much of the week.

“Pre-storm and post-storm we have been assisting the Emergency Operations Center by using our library delivery trucks to deliver food and supplies to Emergency Shelters and even delivering pet supplies to pet-friendly locations,” Baker told LJ. In addition, in the days leading up to the storm the library made arrangements with its vendors to make sure that some online services for ebooks, e-audiobooks, e-magazines, and downloadable movies and music would remain available to the public.

The Broward County Library system was able to open nine of 38 locations on September 12, with most of its branches open by Friday as cleanup progressed and power was restored.

Flooding at the Broward County Library System Main Library Cybrary
Photo courtesy of Broward County Library System

In addition to helping residents connect to relatives, insurers, and FEMA, said director Kelvin Watson, the library would be providing story times, simple crafts, and community puzzles and games, as well as showing movies. One branch put up an “Irma Tree,” designating space on the wall where customers and staff can share their Irma experiences on Post-it notes. The library is also providing operating space for the county’s Emergency Management Agency and its Cultural Division.

“We recently starting lending tablets and mobile hotspots to the community,” Watson told LJ—a similar initiative to one he began as CIO and SVP of Queens Library, NY. In Broward County, he noted, “these tools will be essential with connecting the community with needed services during this time.”

In Jacksonville, 20 of 21 Jacksonville Public Library (JPL) locations were open for business by September 13. And although many staff members were evacuated during the storm, most had returned to their homes by then. “Overall, our library facilities performed very well with no major damage,” said interim library director Jennifer Giltrop. “Of course, there are some leaks, trees down, and lots of debris on the grounds.  Several of our facilities are currently without operable AC, and one without running water that will remain closed today.  All in all, we are extremely happy with the results of what could have been so much worse.”

The Delray Beach Public Library (DBPL) survived the storm without damage, and was able to open to the public the day after the storm passed as a “sanctuary” with air conditioning, charging stations, Wi-Fi, computer access, and regular library services. “Patrons, many of whom had not been in the library before, were grateful,” reported Kae Jonsons, director of development and community relations. “One 99-year-old patron even remembered the 1928 hurricane that affected this area.”

Several businesses without power reserved conference and meeting spaces at DBPL to stay connected. The local SBDC (Small Business Development Center) and CRA (Community Re-Development Association) of the City of Delray Beach have a partnership with the library, with a dedicated embedded consultant on-site who works with numerous Delray Beach entrepreneurs and the small business community. Starting next week, that consultant will help administer SBA Loans and the Emergency Bridge Loan Program to affected local businesses.

“We served many looking for books, teens who needed computer access for homework, harried moms at story hours and crafts, and those who had no other way to get in touch with family members since their power was out at home,” added Jonsons. “We were proud to serve the community this week.”

The main library, 16 branches, and annex of the Palm Beach County Library system also fared well, assistant Acreage Branch Library manager Donna Marie Smith reported, with no damage to the facilities other than loss of power and debris outside. “Library administration and staff provided critical assistance throughout the storm at the county’s Emergency Operations Center and at emergency shelters, providing the residents along the coastal areas and near Lake Okeechobee a safe place from the life-threatening winds, storm surge, and flooding that was forecast,” Smith told LJ.

IRMA ELSEWHERE

The storm’s unpredictability became major issue affecting preparedness. Cuba, for example, did not initially expect a direct hit, but the Civil Defense authority eventually had to evacuate nearly a million people from low-lying areas.

REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking) had scheduled its annual conference for September 7–9 in San Juan. After several days of monitoring Irma’s progress in the Caribbean, the steering committee decided on September 1 that the wisest course would be to cancel the conference; the local government had already canceled classes and work for public employees during that time (Puerto Rico declared a state of emergency on September 4). As of press time, no damage to libraries in Puerto Rico had been reported.

On the mainland, both Georgia and North Carolina declared states of emergency on September 6, and Alabama followed suit on September 8. While a number of colleges throughout the region canceled classes or closed for the duration of the storm, the Ralph Brown Draughon Library at Auburn University, AL, announced that it would remain open as a safe space for anyone in the area to wait out the storm. “We had three or four families stay overnight at the library,” Susan McCallister, associate director of campus safety, told the Opelika-Auburn News.

LIBRARY WORKERS GIVE BACK

While libraries were closed, employees who remained in place helped out in other ways.

In Jacksonville, many served in emergency shelters, answered phones at the city’s centralized call center, and helped run four POD (point of distribution) sites giving out water to those in need on Tuesday, September 12. Library staff served as POD managers, organizing the setup of the PODs.

“We were instructed to give a case of water to each vehicle that came by,” JPL assistant director for community relations and marketing Christian Boivin told LJ. “At the POD where I worked, there was a fairly steady flow of cars all day. Many staff were wearing our JPL t-shirts. It was truly rewarding to be able to help those in need, and we all felt very fortunate to be in a position to do so after this disaster.”

Because JPL is part of the city government, library staff received email asking for city employees to volunteer at Red Cross shelters and offering training. Lisa Buggs, coordinator of lifelong learning and community outreach, and early childhood specialist Susan Mankowski both answered the call.

Buggs was assigned to a special needs shelter that housed not only typical displaced people but also those with special needs and that served as a pet shelter. Mankowski was assigned to a general population shelter. “When the call came out,” Buggs told LJ, “I felt that I could actually contribute in another way to the community—of course, we feel that way every day because we work for a library.” Mankowski added, “It was a good distraction to keep busy and to help others, and to help put [the situation] in perspective.”

Both arrived prepared to bring library activities to their respective shelters, but they were kept busy by the day-to-day business of running a shelter—helping set up cots, preparing and serving meals, and cleaning up. “It was a very optimistic thought,” said Mankowski. “But what Lisa and I were both able to do in the moment was be flexible and accommodate what their needs were, and I think that that is something libraries do very well…go with a plan and then be willing to change it immediately.”

But, noted Buggs, they still found themselves talking to the shelter residents about books; she even brought a book from home for a boy there so he would have something to read. Mostly, they agreed, the volunteer work was a natural extension of what they do as library staff: provide service and connect people to resources. “It may not be media and books and that type of thing,” said Mankowski, “but it’s still assessing their needs and getting them the information that they need.”

Both shelters were understaffed, however, and the two strongly recommend that any library employee who can stay in place during a time of emergency make it a point to volunteer. The Red Cross offers opportunities on its Become a Volunteer page. Local blood banks are also in need of blood donations; anyone interested should contact their regional blood bank center.

The ASPCA and veterinary clinics needed volunteers as well, and Mankowski and Buggs encourage animal lovers to contact their local ASPCA to find out how they can help. Fortunately, the colony of six-toed cats at Key West’s Hemingway Home and Museum were not among the animals needing aid this time. All 54 cats (and the ten humans who rode out the storm with them) survived Irma unscathed.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Lydia Bogar says:

    Our small independent library in MA has duplicates of kids’ books that we would like to send to whatever library is in need of them. We also have adult fiction books to donate. Please advise by email what books you may need. Stay safe.

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