Libraries Respond to Hurricane Ida

U.S. Libraries from the southern states up through the east coast were affected by several severe storms in a row: Hurricane Ida, starting on August 29, Hurricane Henri about a week prior, and Tropical Storm Nicholas, which produced rain and flooding on and after September 14. As with other natural disasters, library staff are simultaneously grappling with damage to their own homes and workplaces and serving the needs of their affected communities.

U.S. Libraries from the southern states up through the east coast were affected by several severe storms in a row: Hurricane Ida, starting on August 29, Hurricane Henri about a week prior, and Tropical Storm Nicholas, which produced rain and flooding on and after September 14. As with other natural disasters, library staff are simultaneously grappling with damage to their own homes and workplaces and serving the needs of their affected communities.



bookmobile in parking lot
East Baton Rouge Bookmobile
Photo by Mary Stein

Louisiana State Librarian Rebecca Hamilton told LJ, “With each storm and each ‘disaster,’ including the pandemic, libraries prove their value 100 times over. We are watching libraries all over Louisiana change their service models immediately and organically to do whatever they need to do to help people when they need help the most.” She continued, “There are many communities across Louisiana where the public library is the only available free internet in that area. This was the case prior to the storms and is probably even more so the case right now.... In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Ida, our public libraries [that] have lost power or internet have worked tirelessly to get internet restored as quickly as possible.”

In addition to library services, Hamilton stated, “Our public libraries are helping to feed people, collecting donations in the form of clothing and food to give to their ‘new regulars’ from out of town. They are going to wherever evacuees and volunteers are, including food lines, shelters, hotels, and motels, letting them know that they can help." She concluded, “It’s like [it’s] embedded in our psyche that libraries are safe and people will [be helped] there."

Mary Stein, assistant director of the East Baton Rouge Parish Library, said that the library is on standby to be a shelter, along with two other places in the community. Stein recounted how staff were able to provide services and much needed air conditioning without municipal power by utilizing the library’s two bookmobiles, run on generators. Additionally, all 11 branches in the system were able to become recharging stations for patrons with mobile devices. A staff member from the New Orleans Public Library affirmed that several branches were also opened to serve recharging needs after Hurricane Ida. Stein said, "You do a lot of listening because people want to share their story. That’s part of the respite people need. We believe ourselves to be essential. And there we are, serving the public in moments of crisis.... When they find a librarian they can trust, they trust the library will be there for them.”

Mandi Johnson, associate director of community engagement at Bossier Parish Libraries confirmed that staff have made contact with all shelters in the area and provided information about the library’s resources, including temporary library cards, and presented a story time for displaced children.

One of the challenges for the libraries most affected by these storms, aside from the loss of power and flooding, was the evacuation of their staff and complications due to the pandemic. Hamilton also noted that “employees evacuated to the northern part of Louisiana and Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee, [having previously] adapted well to telecommuting during the pandemic."

Not only has it been important to provide traditional library services to patrons, but it is often crucial to offer emotional support to people on both sides of the desk. The State Library of Louisiana has been holding a virtual public library directors’ meeting biweekly since the onset of the pandemic. Attendance is not required, and the agenda is driven by suggestions from the directors. The meetings serve as a forum for all administrators to come together to vent, get emotional support, provide updates on their library systems, share ideas for serving evacuees, and more.

The State Library of Louisiana has provided an interactive map that records which libraries are opened and closed, and an emergency status blog reporting the current status of all Louisiana libraries. The Louisiana Library and Book Festival Foundation is accepting donations on behalf of public libraries in the state.



man stepping over room littered with books covering the floor, fallen bookcases
Caldwell Public Library lower level, including back offices, Children's Room, and archival content area
Photo by Robin Rockman

Many libraries in the New Jersey area reported significant damage from Hurricane Ida and other recent storms and at least seven have been closed due to flooding, according to the New Jersey Library Association. The Caldwell Public Library sustained devastating damage as a result of Hurricane Ida on September 1. According to the New Jersey Library Association, the entire lower level was destroyed: materials, equipment, and significant parts of the structure—the children's room and back offices, including the server and archives/town historical content. Staff members are working to preserve and save the materials.

Judith Eisner, a member of the Board of Trustees for the Millburn Free Library, told LJ that the library opened by midnight once it was deemed a “safe haven” by the fire and rescue squad and library director. Fifty people from the community who were rescued from their homes and cars were brought to the library, which is equipped with a generator, to stay overnight for comfort and safety. The main auditorium was turned into a volunteer center, where people could donate everything from children's shoes to paper towels to Red Cross buckets filled with necessities, so that anyone could come to the library and, in privacy, find what they might need to sustain themselves for a few days. The response was swift, and the collection of these items closed within a day or two of the announcement going out. The collection and distribution process was run by volunteers in the community, who also made certain that local Little Free Libraries were intact and replenished for those who had lost their reading material along with everything else. Eisner stated that the library is “the hub of the cultural and social center of our wonderful and generous community.”

The New Jersey State Library (NJSL) established a targeted Emergency Grant Fund to help libraries that were damaged by tropical storms Ida and Henri. Libraries had until September 20 to request funds to mitigate damage, replace materials or equipment, or support repairs. The grant amount will be determined once the number of impacted libraries is determined, but is expected to be in the $10,000 to $20,000 range. Once NJSL knows the number of libraries damaged, staff will provide information to eligible libraries on the maximum grant size.



hallway flooded with brown water, chairs overturned at end
Glen Cove Public Library Community room, with water line four feet high
Photo by Michael Fitzpatrick

Angela Montefinise, senior director of public relations, communications, and marketing for New York Public Library (NYPL) said that there had been minimal water incursion in about one third of NYPL branches but no serious damage after the remnants of Hurricane Ida moved through the northeast on September 1. A small number of branches could not open immediately due to water issues. Flooding, however, had caused serious problems with the subway and the rest of NYC public transportation. Fritz Bodenheimer, press officer for Brooklyn Public Library, confirmed that some branches experienced flooding; however, most was minor. Both systems reported that they were able to resume operations by noon the day after the storm.

Representatives from Queens Public Library were unable to comment.

Kathie Flynn, director for Glen Cove Public Library , told LJ that the city of Glen Cove, in Nassau County on Long Island, was drenched with 9.7 inches of rain in four hours on September 2. She reported that the library's basement level, split into two sections, contains a programming room on one end, and the children’s program supplies and the staff lunch room on the other. The programming storage side of the basement took on four feet of flood water, while the other section took on approximately 12 inches. Due to the pandemic, staff had removed furniture from public areas in order to keep patrons from congregating, and all stored furniture was ruined by the flood water. The library was closed for 12 days; on September 14, staff were able to return to clean up and provide curbside services, and the library reopened on September 20. Flynn stated, “Closing to the public was extremely difficult after being closed for COVID. We did the best we could to reopen in a timely manner, but there was just so much water.”



Hurricane Ida was downgraded to a tropical storm when it landed in Middlebury. According to Director Jo-Ann LoRusso, the town department heads worked together to create communication channels with all town departments, including the police, fire, parks and recreation, and local senior center. The library is equipped with a generator, and provided power for the building and six phone/laptop charging stations. It is within walking distance to the town community center, which is equipped to be the designated shelter with showers, cots, and a kitchen facility.

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