What Katrina Can Teach Libraries About Sandy and Other Disasters

Disaster plans used to seem like “kind of a bother” to Lance D. Query, Tulane University’s director of libraries. Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, flooding Tulane’s Howard-Tilton Memorial Library with more than eight feet of water. “I look at them much more carefully now,” says Mr. Query.

In late October, New York University’s Langone Medical Center and its Ehrman Medical Library suffered major damage from Hurricane Sandy, and a number of other institutions in the New York-New Jersey area also took a major blow. Mr. Query has some hard-won advice and words of encouragement for libraries trying to recover from Sandy or other disasters, and for those reviewing their disaster-response plans.

Turn a crisis into an opportunity. If affected libraries “play their cards right” and use insurance and FEMA resources effectively, they may emerge stronger than before, he says. That’s been the case at Tulane. Seven years after the storm, “we’re unquestionably a stronger library than we were,” he says. Insurance money helped the library rebuild its collections with a greater emphasis on digital material, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has been working with the university to restore facilities.

Be ready for bureaucratic headaches and a long recovery timetable. It has taken seven years to get FEMA clearance to add two floors to the main Tulane library to replace the basement storage space, which was flooded by Katrina. Construction is finally set to begin early next year. “We’ve had a devil of a time with FEMA,” Mr. Query says. “That’s been our biggest challenge.” Since the agency is footing the bill, “rightfully so, they have to approve everything,” he says. Tulane wound up hiring outside consultants to manage the FEMA process.

Know the value of your collections before disaster strikes. Libraries need to “make sure they have their resources valued appropriately,” with an assessment that is up to date, Mr. Query says. Insurance companies can be difficult, and having current and accurate appraisals makes the back-and-forth easier.

Know whom to call for help—before you need it. After Katrina, the disaster-management company Belfor “came in here like a SWAT team,” Mr. Query says. “I can’t say enough good things about them.” Belfor’s workers boxed up damaged library materials, packed them into 18-wheel trucks with freezer compartments, and shipped them off to the company’s Texas facilities for preservation and restoration. “I would recommend that every university, prior to the emergency, have arrangements” in place with Belfor or another disaster-management company, Mr. Query says. “Ideally you have these relationships set up, through your risk-management office, a priori.”

Plan to lend a helping hand if you can. Katrina wreaked havoc far beyond Tulane’s campus. “All of the universities and libraries in New Orleans were affected,” Mr. Query says. Because Tulane was the largest, “we were in a position to serve as the library” for other institutions whose infrastructure couldn’t recover as quickly. “That was a challenge. It was very gratifying.” Libraries that are in urban areas or are part of consortia “might want to address how any of them might want to serve as backups for others in case of emergency,” he says.

If you’re a library director, know which staffers are critical to your mission. For a time after Katrina, Tulane’s administration operated from Houston. During that period, the university’s president asked the library which employees were essential, Mr. Query recalls. “We had to look at staffing very carefully.”

To sum up: Be prepared, and have a plan in place. “With financial constraints, budget cuts, skyrocketing costs of materials, it’s hard to keep disaster preparedness on the front burner,” Mr. Query says. “There’s a natural tendency to think it isn’t going to happen to us and we’re pretty well protected. I think we’ve all come to learn that’s really quite a folly.”

[Image: Library materials damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Courtesy of the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane U.]

Return to Top