Recovering and Rebuilding after a Hurricane — What Librarians Learned from Hurricane Katrina

News | September 21, 2017

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What librarians learned from Hurricane Katrina, and the lessons they provide to librarians dealing with the 2017 hurricanes.

As Hurricane Harvey bore down on Texas and Irma lined itself up to hit the Caribbean and Florida, we reached out to the staff at the New Orleans Public Library and asked them to answer some questions about recovering from Katrina, and pass on some words of wisdom about disaster recovery. Now that Hurricane Maria has taken its toll on the Caribbean, we hope these thoughts provide some guidance to librarians affected by the 2017 hurricanes and some support for the long road ahead.

We came to know New Orleans Public Library Director of Marketing and Communications John Marc Sharpe when New Orleans Public Library won a John Cotton Dana Award in 2015. 

John Marc Sharpe:

I was not in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and so what seemed like a simple request revealed just how raw emotions are still, over 12 years later. Many staff did not want to think about that time, but two of our librarians have answered the questions. A few things to note: There are currently no administrative personnel still at NOPL who were there during that time period, so specific information about system-wide decisions is not readily available but what I think may be more interesting and relevant to the readers is the personal nature of the responses.

There was not a Marketing or Communications department or staff during that time, and no formal social media channels for the Library. Today, we have multiple emergency communication channels for staff including text messaging, staff emergency blog, and the ability to update our website from anywhere. I hope your readers will find this information useful. 

Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, and all library locations were temporarily closed until damage could be assessed and repairs made. Six of thirteen library locations were completely destroyed and 90% of library staff were initially laid off, with only 19 staff members remaining to begin building the system back. Only three libraries received minimal damage and began operating again on October 31, 2005, two months after the storm. A portion of the Main Library was used as a FEMA disaster recovery center. Today, over 12 years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the Library is still rebuilding. There is one final location, the Nora Navra Library, which is currently under construction and is scheduled to reopen sometime during the summer of 2018.

picture of New Orleans Public Library after Hurricane Katrina
Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Public Library

What went through your mind in the first few days and weeks after a storm like Katrina, and how did the Library keep track of staffers and their needs?

Seale Paterson, Library Manager – Hubbell Library – Honestly, during the first few days, it was mostly just "What do I do next? Where do I go?" As the weeks went on and I was unable to return home, there was a lot of "How do I get home? How do I get back to work? What do I do to keep myself busy and not go crazy?" and a lot of worrying about everything — friends, home, work, the city, neighbors, animals, my entire life. Just a lot of sitting around worrying and feeling helpless. And having a lot of nightmares, many involving the library underwater.

The library did not have a system in place at the time to keep track of staff. I found out via the radio that I had lost my job a few days after I was back in New Orleans. Literally, this is what I heard: “If you are a city employee and have not been contacted by a supervisor, you should take that to mean that you no longer have a job.”

When I finally was able to get in touch with someone, they said they had been told I had moved to Florida and that's why I hadn't heard from anyone. I don't know who told them that, but it was never even a consideration.

Kirsten Corby, Library Manager – Norman Mayer Library – I have to be honest and say the library was not the first thing on my mind. I didn’t know where some friends and neighbors were, or if they were even alive. I didn’t know what had happened to my own house: I lived in Gentilly at the time. I assumed the libraries in the flooded regions were a total loss. It was amazing when Main Library came through largely unscathed.

It was hard getting contact. I texted with a few people. Department head Kim Tran created a Blogspot for people to leave their contact information and communicate. This was useful.

I'm sure a recovery that large seemed impossible but what were the first steps? How was the scope of the needs of both the library and the community determined?

Kirsten Corby – We were greatly helped by the fact that Main Library did not flood. The catalog, website, and main computer infrastructure was all intact. God help a library that loses its IT department or main administrative offices.

How did the library reach out to the community? Was the library a natural place for people to come together or did you have to do outreach?

Seale Paterson – I do know that a lot of people, even up to a few years after we opened, were not aware that we had been open as long as we had. So I guess there should have been more outreach, but at the same time... people were busy and overwhelmed and dealing with their own things.

Kirsten Corby – A little of both I think. I would suggest - hit the outreach hard, and message hard on social media. I had people ask me more than a year after Katrina, when will the Main Library be open?  It was open in October 2005!  Mere weeks after the storm.

Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Public Library

Given what you know about recovering from a disaster, what are the first things you would suggest to librarians in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean?

Seale Paterson – Take care of yourself first. If you aren't mentally or emotionally ready to deal with other people and other peoples' problems, you will get overwhelmed very quickly, which doesn't help you or them.

Be prepared to be overwhelmed a lot. Don't be afraid to ask for and/or accept help from family, friends, neighbors and strangers. And definitely don't be afraid to tell a doctor you need help coping or sleeping or making healthy choices.

Kirsten Corby – Rescue and stabilize what collections you can. Look to your State Library for help with that. Make sure your people who you are asking to return in the early days have a place to stay, food to eat. Toilet paper is what the State Librarian of Mississippi said was needed at the time during a panel on Katrina at ALA that next year. Bring cash money — the ATMs aren’t working — and toilet paper. Feed people — City Hall had a catered hot lunch line for staffers there for months after Katrina, starting from the first days after we got back in. Start with basic needs and build from there.

What are the little wins you celebrated as you plotted out the recovery?

Seale Paterson – Every person that came back. Every time a new traffic light started working. Every store and restaurant that opened up. Everyday things returning to "normal" were the best victories.

Kirsten Corby – Opening each branch. Opening the FEMA center at Main Library.

Where is the need for libraries affected by these Hurricanes? Can you give a framework for one month, three months and six months out?

Seale Paterson – They need money. DO NOT LET ANYONE SAY YOU NEED DONATED BOOKS. You will get tons of books that are absolutely of no use to you, and you have no way to process them or even store them. It will become a job unto itself. Tell people that want to send books to have a book drive and sell the books themselves and then send you the proceeds in a check. The only people who know what the library needs are the people running the library. And pretty much anything can be fixed with money. They will figure out what they need, and if it's not money, they can let people know.

Kirsten Corby – I’m not a disaster recovery professional, but — start with the staff, make sure they are secure. Stabilize what you can. Then assess the losses. Look to start providing basic services as soon as you can — computer access, basic reference. People will need it, and it will make the staff feel good to be doing useful work as well. Be aware that you may have to take drastic action: NOPL laid off all but 19 of its staff in the immediate aftermath, myself included. Some of your branches may never re-open. But fight, also, for the libraries’ share of the recovery pie. 

How long did recovery efforts take at New Orleans Public Library? When did you know you were making progress, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel?

Seale Paterson – It's still happening... with Nora Navra finally getting rebuilt. I guess every time a modular library opened, or a new library building was built. People being rehired was really great too — seeing familiar faces and knowing people were safe and returning to their lives.

Kirsten Corby – YEARS. I don’t think any of us were looking for light at the end for a long time. Just take it day by day.

picture of open public library, New Orleans
Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Public Library

What would you say to your fellow librarians who are looking to put both their lives and their libraries back together?

Seale Paterson – Just take care of yourself. Don't waste your energy worrying all the time. Prioritize your needs and tackle them in small doses and don't allow yourself to get overwhelmed. There will be too much to do, and you cannot do it all at once. Allow yourself to take charge of the process. Both at home and work.

Kirsten Corby – It seems insurmountable, but it can be done. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done.

Look to your State Library, your consortium, and federal service agencies like Americorps for help. Don’t be proud, take any help you can get. The time will come when you are recovered, and you will render help in your turn. Take what you need now, and pay it forward.

Here’s one thing that struck me, and has stayed with me. I was amazed when all the grass in the city grew back green, the spring after Katrina. That grass had marinated in toxic seawater for weeks; I thought it was dead forever. I thought, if the grass can come back alive, we can too. It gave me hope.

Find out how to help libraries affected by the 2017 hurricanes:

Right now there are library-specific funds set up in Texas and Florida.

Donate to Texas Library Association’s Disaster Relief Fund:

Donate to Florida Library Relief:

Find out more about New Orleans Public Library:

NOPL History Timeline:

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