November 21, 2017

After Harvey Libraries Reopen, Organizations Step Up

Salvaging books at HCPL’s Kingwood Library
Photo courtesy of Harris County Public Library

Over a five-day period, Hurricane Harvey devastated the Gulf Coast area of southeastern Texas and parts of Louisiana. More than 50 inches of rain fell, killing at least 66 people, displacing 30,000 others, and causing up to $190 billion in damages.

When skies finally cleared at the end of August, cleanup efforts began in earnest. In Rockport, where Harvey first made landfall on August 25, the Aransas County Public Library sustained major damage and has not reopened, and at the Ellis Memorial Library in Port Aransas, the collection was described in a Facebook post as “a total loss.”

The Houston area, to the northwest, received more scattered damage, and by the Tuesday after the Labor Day weekend, the Houston Public Library (HPL) and Harris County Public Library (HCPL) had reopened a number of their branches. They will continue to do so on a rolling basis—but it will be months before services approach business as usual.

HPL: EMPHASIS ON THE “US”

On September 5, HPL opened the 18 of its 42 libraries that had sustained little or no damage. Although full services were not yet restored to the Central Library, it did have electricity and Internet services and was able to provide space to some city departments that were unable to work out of their own offices because City Hall, across the street from the Central Library, took on several feet of water.

The library is also hosting Camp HoUSton—emphasis on the “us”—which is providing child care for approximately 150 City of Houston employees until schools reopen on September 11. Services to families and children are of primary importance right now, HPL director Rhea Lawson said. “These children have seen so much,” she told LJ. “They’ve been so scared. They’ve been displaced and we want to bring the joy back in [their] eyes… through a lot of programs—games and crafts and movies and things like that, story times—to give parents and caregivers and children a chance just to snuggle and lose themselves…to have some sense of normalcy and comfort.”

Out of 500 HPL employees, Lawson estimated that at least 50 lost power in their homes, 40 had to evacuate, and 25 were in shelters. But even before the Tuesday reopening, many volunteered to staff branches in multi-service centers over the weekend to provide WIC (food for Women, Infants, and Children) services to those in need. “We’re overwhelmed with volunteers,” said Lawson. “I’m so proud of my team because they want to find a way to help people. Everybody has this sense of wanting to do something to help push the city forward.”

Six HPL buildings sustained major damage, most of it water-related: the McGovern-Stella Link Neighborhood Library, Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research, the HPL Express Location Morris Frank Library, McCrane–Kashmere Gardens Neighborhood Library, Kendall Neighborhood Library, and Lakewood Neighborhood Library (eight library vehicles were also lost). Many have severely waterlogged flooring, which will require removal before mold sets in, and the HPL team will need to assess damage to the collections.

Lawson hopes to open the remaining branches gradually. “One of the reasons that we’re taking our time opening is because we want to make sure that when people come in, they get the best we have to offer,” noted Lawson. “We’re going to make sure those places we open are fully staffed and we are offering a bevy of services.”

One thing HPL is not wanting for is offers of aid. “We’ve been overwhelmed—warmly so—with so many people wanting to know how they can help us,” Lawson told LJ. “Right now, we want to do this week and see how it goes, and have a better answer for people after we get our service back up and running. Then there may be some opportunities for collection restoration.” People have also volunteered to help sort and carry books, said Lawson, “and as we start doing that kind of work, I’m sure that there’d be an opportunity, if people are close by, to come by and help us out.”

She added, “We’re just trying to get our feet back under us and start to provide services to folks. I’m sure there’ll be an opportunity for us to reach back out to our colleagues and say, ‘You know, here’s what we really need. This is the area where we really need the help.’ ” In the meantime, she said, people can follow HPL on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to see how recovery efforts are going.

HCPL PARTNERS FOR RELIEF

HCPL’s Barbara Bush Library at Cypress Creek
Photo courtesy of Harris County Public Library

HCPL was able to open 20 of its 26 branches on Friday, September 1; starting September 11, 22 branches will be in operation during normal hours. Residents have given the computers heavy use, applying for assistance and filing insurance claims—more than 7,000 public computer sessions and over 3,000 Wi-Fi sessions in the first few days alone.

Branches throughout the area are partnering with nonprofit organizations and county entities to serve as meeting places and distribution points for supplies. “We’ve served as a space for partner relief organizations to come in and meet up, and get their efforts off the ground in the communities,” said Linda Stevens, HCPL division manager of programs, partnership, and outreach. “The SPCA, for example, has delivered free pet supplies to branches, and people can come pick them up.”

The library is also working with local shelters and the large emergency shelter set up at Houston’s NRG Center, bringing laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots and providing some STEM and 3-D printing activities to keep children occupied. Librarians provided plenty of basic reference services as well, added deputy director Garrette Smith—many people needed help with aid applications, some starting from scratch with their first email address.

Four branches remain closed because of flood damage to furniture, fixtures, equipment, and collections. Director Edward Melton reported that at the Kingwood Library and Barbara Bush Library at Cypress Creek, both two-story buildings, the first floors were “pretty much unsalvageable” (the Bush library will remain closed indefinitely); the entire Baldwin Boettcher Library at Mercer Park is a loss; and at the Katherine Tyra Library at Bear Creek about a third of the collection was salvageable. The cost of the lost collections alone is estimated at about $2.5 million.

“We started the remediation process this past week in terms of getting the water out of those buildings and salvaging what we can,” Melton told LJ on September 7. “This next week we’ll start working with contractors in order to start [preparing] a schedule to figure out how we start repair on those locations.”

Organizations from across the country have reached out to HCPL asking how they can help. Melton and Smith request that those who want to contribute either donate funds through the Harris County Friends of the Library or another organization, or work with HCPL’s vendors, who have set up carts that other library systems can purchase and have shipped to the library. One reason, explained Melton, is that the time necessary to catalog and process gifts of books would mean additional work for a staff already working at capacity; new books come pre-processed and can be shelved immediately. Also, as division manager of collections and technical services Amber Seely noted, the damaged branches currently don’t have the capacity to store donated books.

HCPL book donations at the NRG Center emergency shelter
Photo courtesy of Harris County Public Library

However, the library has found a way to use the donated books that have arrived since the flooding: bringing them to shelters and the NRG center “and giving them away to the people there who had lost everything,” said Stevens.

But Melton appreciates all offers of support, no matter how large or small. “We have been hearing from all kinds of library systems and organizations that want to help us,” he told LJ. “So as we start to assess and really understand what the true impact is, we know that we do have a lot of support from the library community.”

In the meantime, HCPL, HPL, and area libraries will make sure to share their successes and struggles in the media and online; filmmakers Lucie Faulknor and Dawn Logsdon were on hand at HPL during the first week of September to add its story to their upcoming documentary Free for All: Inside the Public Library.

“We think it’s valuable for people to understand the challenges of going through a situation like this,” said Melton. “So as much as we can share this experience with the broader library community, we want to do that.”

POST-HARVEY RESOURCES

The Texas Library Association (TLA) and the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) have created the Texas Library Recovery Connection, consisting of two Google worksheets—one for libraries in need of assistance, the other for companies or organizations offering resources.

The New Books for Hurricane Harvey Schools & Libraries initiative, organized by author Kate Messner, offers a form for schools, teachers, or librarians whose libraries were impacted and who are ready to receive donations of books. Authors, illustrators, or publishing professionals who wish to donate books can also do so through the website.

TLA has expanded its Disaster Relief Resources page, and those wishing to help can donate to the TLA Disaster Relief Fund, which provides grants to libraries to assist in recovery efforts.

TSLAC will offer “Rebuilding Texas Libraries” disaster relief grants to public, school, and academic libraries in the counties declared a disaster area or a sheltering jurisdiction by Governor Greg Abbott. Libraries may apply for funds to help with recovery from damages sustained in the storm and subsequent flooding or to offer library-related emergency services to persons impacted by the storm, and will be eligible to receive up to $5,000 per affected location, with a maximum of $25,000 for libraries with multiple affected branches. Applications will be due by October 16 and grants will be awarded by November 3. Libraries will have until the end of January to spend the funds; guidelines will be released September 18 on the TSLAC website.

TSLAC also intends to make approximately $300,000 available for Rebuilding Texas Libraries grants from Library Services and Technology Act funds allocated to Texas by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services. Libraries can use the funds to purchase books and other library materials, technology, furniture, and contractual services toward their recovery.

The Louisiana Library Association has a Disaster Relief Fund as well, created in response to the damages of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Also taking a page from Katrina recovery efforts, the Louisiana Library Association has provided the Louisiana Library Status Blog for libraries in the state to list give updates on service and/or provide information to their staff.

The Central Texas Library System is listing services and fundraisers offered by open libraries, as well as a Harvey Damage Updates page; libraries are encouraged to share their status via email or call (800) 262-4431.

One of the most charming relief efforts is the virtual Hurricane Harvey Book Club, launched by Kathryn Butler Mills, a second grade teacher at WoodCreek Elementary School in Katy, TX. It started life as a Facebook group where Mills’s friends and colleagues posted videos of them reading books aloud to help distract and entertain area children. As of the end of August the group had reached nearly 45,000 members nationwide, and expanded into the @HHarveyBookClub on Twitter. The club is also selling t-shirts online to help raise funds to restore Texas teachers’ classroom libraries.

As Texas and Louisiana libraries begin the work of recovery—and as Florida libraries brace for upcoming Hurricane Irma—organizations around the country are stepping up to contribute their knowledge and convene discussions about disaster preparedness and responses. September is National Preparedness Month, and as part of the PrepareAthon! Campaign developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the New Jersey State Library has commissioned the Librarian’s Disaster Planning and Community Resiliency Guidebook and Workbook to help libraries across the country secure their own facilities and provide aid to their constituents. According to the Disaster Preparedness & Recovery website, “First, these new resources will help make your library more resilient so that you can return to operations quickly. Second, we have provided guidance on how libraries can help speed the recovery of their community, and [become] key contributors to a resilient community.”

On September 28, the Texas Historical Commission will offer a free webinar for cultural heritage institutions that were affected by Hurricane Harvey. Rebecca Elder of the National Heritage Responders and Lori Foley of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force will discuss emergency response, salvage, and recovery; participants are encouraged to come with questions; registration is required.

The Facebook page Libraries Step Up (in times of crisis) is a good source of ongoing information on how best to help public and school libraries.

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Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Jera Stribling says:

    When will the Stella Link branch reopen?

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