March 18, 2018

After Floods, Colorado Libraries Assess the Damage, Step in With Services

Last month, Colorado was inundated by rains that caused unprecedented flooding throughout the state, damaging or destroying more than 19,000 homes and claiming eight lives. Weeks later, recovery crews are still trying to return the state to a sense of normalcy, as libraries try to provide needed services to residents while also working to restore damage to some of their own facilities.

Throughout the state, libraries were largely spared the worst of the storm’s wrath, though the misses were often narrow ones. Despite its proximity to a stream that overflowed its banks, the main branch of the Boulder Public Library (BPL), for instance, did not suffer any significant damage. “Considering the expanse of the damage and that it cut across many areas from rural to suburban to urban, it is somewhat miraculous that more damage wasn’t reported,” said Colorado State Librarian Gene Hanier.

Across town, on the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus, the story was similar. Norlin Library was one of more than 70 buildings on the campus that was affected, with some water in the basement. However, the damage was minimal and most of the 100 or so books that did have some water damage should be saved by air drying, Programming and Communications Librarian Deborah Fink told a reporter for the campus paper The Independent.

Other libraries fared worse. Just three miles north of the CU campus, the library of Crest View Elementary School had to be packed up wholesale and moved to the school’s gymnasium for safekeeping after flood waters repeatedly inundated the site. Though most of the library’s resources were saved from the damage by maintenance workers, the space itself will need to be remade from scratch. Weeks after the flood waters have receded, the library has been reduced to four walls and a concrete floor. When director Nancy Carabell returned to her office in the wake of the flood, she searched her office for a pen to take notes with, only to find the cupboards in the library entirely bare.

Since the flood, a small army of parents helped to sort through the boxed up books to ensure none had been damaged by water or mold. “Amazingly, there were maybe ten books out of thousands that were damaged,” said Carabell. “What we don’t know yet was how many books were thrown out rather than boxed up.” Later this month, school librarians from around Boulder will be joining Carabell to take a full inventory and get a better picture of how Crest View’s collection fared. Whatever the state of the collection, though, it will be a while before Crest View has a proper home for it again.

“What we know going forward is it will take two or three months to get new shelving in,” said Carabell. “It could be January or later before we have an operational library here.” While working to put temporary shelving situation in place, Carabell has considered just placing the boxed up books in the empty library so kids can access them, but she and her staff are understandably flood-shy about leaving anything on the floor now. As an interim plan, Carabell is trying to get books to the students she serves through the public library system. “We’re partnering with Boulder Public Library to try and make sure every kid has a BPL card.”

Meanwhile, libraries that were not hit as hard by rising flood waters served as relief centers for patrons. Some 45 miles northwest of Boulder in the resort town of Estes Park, the Estes Valley Library (EVL) closed for only a day after the town’s downtown was evacuated on Thursday, September 12. While commercial spaces just across the street from the library suffered from three feet or more of flooding, EVL escaped the worst of it. Four inches or so of mucky water from a creek behind the library ruined carpeted floors and walls on the building’s first floor, but no books or computers were lost as a result. “In the scheme of things, the library feels very fortunate,” said director Claudine Perrault.

After evacuating Thursday, librarians were back on the job by Saturday, September 15, opening the library to community meetings and providing power and Internet access to Estes Park citizens who were struggling to contact loved ones and learn more about the city’s emergency plans. That Saturday, said Perrault, turned out to be the busiest day in EVL’s history, and motivated staff to keep the library open nearly every day since the flood. EVL also modified its hours during the first weeks afterward, opening earlier to accommodate more patrons and closing earlier so no one would be tempted to drive there at night, a dangerous proposition in following the flood.

While power and Internet connectivity have been largely restored to Estes Park, the library is still providing a range of basics–like toilets residents can flush. About a third of the town’s homes are in areas prohibited from flushing for fear of sending untreated sewage into the river. The library, which is in an area where flushing is allowed, is encouraging folks to come down and flush to their hearts content, rather than using the porta-potties many residents are currently consigned to.

The recovery effort in Colorado is expected to be a slow one, as the heavy flooding took place over a wide area. Roads washed out by severe flooding have made it harder for relief workers to get where they’re needed, and the shutdown of the federal government has complicated matters. National Guard engineers assisting with the cleanup are now being paid out of the state’s coffers, though Governor John Hickenlooper is hopeful that the state will be repaid once the national government is open for business again. In Estes Park, the closure of nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, usually a big draw for hikers and campers, has dealt yet another blow to the town’s tourist-driven economy, said Perrault.

Librarians around the state, though, report that the community has come together to support them, from offering help with cleanup efforts to to delivering coffee and hot chocolate to library staff working to keep facilities open under less than ideal conditions.  About half of the labor going into repairs at EVL, said Perrault, was from volunteers. And even the hardest hit librarians are looking for bright sides to grim situations. At Crest View, Carabell is already exploring ways to redesign the school library, and offering students the chance to weigh in on what the new library will look like. Though some suggestions—like trampoline floors—aren’t much help, Carabell reports that other ideas, like shelves on casters that can easily be moved around for  a more flexible floor plan, could be put into place when the library reopens. “The kids are chomping at the bit to get back into the library,” said Carabell. “The possibility is that we can come out of this thinking about how to be more patron friendly.”

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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  1. Antonia Gaona says:

    Thank you for reporting on the state of Colorado libraries after the flood. In case it’s of any interest to others- one public library in Boulder did suffer significant damage. The George Reynolds Branch Library of the Boulder Public Library is closed until November because there was over 4′ of water in the basement meeting room. The library is closed for renovation and environmental remediation. Luckily, materials and other services are mostly located on the first floor. We are fortunate there are other libraries in Boulder to serve the public, but this was a significant loss for the neighborhood and community around the Reynolds Library.

  2. I just came onto your post and found it quite interesting. I am also associated with flood damage,water removal,and love to enjoy the stuff on the same as it’s rarely found on internet. Thanks again for writing such a good post.