When Disaster Strikes: Lessons from the Soggy Trenches
Library leaders recount when hurricanes hit their libraries and the process of recovery.
November 29, 2018
Jeff Williams and Debbie Sibley share an experience neither would have chosen to have: both helped lead their libraries through two of the decade’s biggest storms and their aftermath. In Williams’s case, NYU Langone Health and its Health Sciences Library took a direct hit from the storm surge provoked by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.
Sibley’s first day at her new job at the Texas Medical Center (TMC) Library was two days after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August 2017. The entire area shut down and Sibley never made it to work.
Q: Can you describe the damage to your libraries from the storms?
JW: Our cellar level was inundated, devastating staff offices, a newly opened study area, and our onsite collection. The main floor was partially flooded by heavily contaminated water, destroying everything it touched — our service desk, computers, reference collection, etc. Only things on top shelves were spared. The library was wiped out.
Our biggest concern was an archive storage closet on the cellar level with a lot of material documenting the history of the NYU Langone Medical Center. The takeaway: don’t put your archives in the cellar. We thought the material was a complete loss, but preservation experts were able to restore a lot of the material and FEMA paid for some of that.
DS: Let me preface my answer by saying I am from Louisiana, so I know what hurricanes can do. Therefore, as the storm gathered force, I asked if I could come in the Friday before my Monday start day to get my ID and keys.
The library sustained damage on the first floor — the ceiling tiles and the carpet along the windows — but none to library material. On the street level, there was sewer water back up. In some areas on that level, there were five to six inches of water; in other areas, nothing. That’s where we had offices, study space, and a classroom. We had to move our administrative offices and several staff offices to some unoccupied space on the second floor of the building for a couple of months. There was also a big, disorganized pile of furniture and equipment that was moved from the two damaged floors — some was salvageable; much was not. During the two months the staff was displaced, we spent time figuring out what could be kept and what had to be thrown away.
Q: What did you and the staff do in the initial days after the storm?
JW: Our initial impulse was to get everyone to pitch in and start working together to get everything up and running. But there was nothing that could be done. There was no electricity in the library and the spaces were dangerous. Our website and email were down and we hadn’t done as good a job as we should have making sure we had everyone’s cell and home numbers. It took several days to cobble together a phone list and connect with everyone to talk about where we were headed.
Until the online infrastructure was functioning again, we used an external information system (LibGuides) and put information on that for our users. We created an email address so we could start to hear users’ needs. The reality was that the entire medical center was offline. Patients had been evacuated, doctors’ offices were closed, so there weren’t a lot of library needs initially. We had been planning to move all of our IT systems on to our medical center’s servers. They have a robust set of backups and off-site servers.
We were able to procure two offices in a building across the street. One became the command center. Library leadership sat around one round table and decided what we were going to do. The systems staff was in the second office, figuring out how to get resources back online. They did an amazing job cobbling together access. Fortunately, we were at a point where a lot of the information the library provided was online, so the loss of our physical space wasn’t as devastating as it might have been. We also needed to make it possible for our librarians and staff to work effectively from home for the next few weeks, until we could procure more office space and start to bring some of them back together.
By mid-December, we had some new temporary office space in a former child study center. It wasn’t ideal, but we were thankful to our facilities people, who had worked very hard to get us space. The new Sid and Ruth Lapidus Health Sciences Library was opened 3 ½ years later in June 2016.
DS: On Tuesday, the day after I started the job, I was able to set up a conference call with the library staff, using the phone system of the regional medical library in Fort Worth. We talked about the status of things. There was no access to our website and other online resources for several days. I was also able to let myself into the library to assess the damage and meet UT Health Auxiliary Enterprises personnel. UT Health owns and manages the building. On the day after Labor Day, we reopened the doors to the library — a week after my start date. UT Health was able to replace the damaged ceiling tiles and carpet on the first floor in a couple of months. The street level re-opened in early January 2018, four months after Harvey.
Q: How prepared was the library for the storm? Is there anything you would do differently, planning-wise?
JW: We had a good plan for disaster recovery related to our collection that we had shared with the archivists and preservation people at NYU. They showed up on their own, with our guide in hand, and removed from our archives the resources we had prioritized — to begin the restoration process. Our biggest deficiencies were the business continuation plan and the communication plan, which we’ve now improved. After the storm, we created a disaster response guide and it’s now required that library leadership have a copy at home and at work. (See resources below for information on creating a disaster response guide.)
DS: The library had already moved our journal collection to the UT Joint Library Facility in Bryan, Texas. We had also started the process of moving our monograph collection to the same place. Nothing in rare books or the collections was damaged. Our IT staff had a lot of experience with weather events in the past and had spent Friday morning before the storm moving the classroom computers to the second floor. We were able to operate the classroom in that space from September until the end of January.
Q: Did the storm and its aftermath cause you to rethink any of your library’s operations?
JW: The Lapidus Library is in the same building we were in pre-storm, with about the same footprint, but with better utilization of space. The library is now all on one floor and the staff — except for two librarians — are in a building across the street, so the renovated library is strictly a public facility.
I had been hired about six months before the storm to establish a liaison program which moves librarians out of the library and into their users’ environments to engage with them in order to understand their challenges and information needs. We no longer had a physical library during the initial years after the storm, so our movement away from legacy services and models — like a librarian sitting at a reference desk waiting for someone to ask a question — was accelerated.
Q: Jeff, tell us about your new library.
JW: We no longer have book or reserve collections. If we need to provide resources for a class, we’ll work with faculty to identify the appropriate online resources. Before we had no group study rooms; now we have five and they’re heavily used. We used to have a computer training lab with long rows of tables with computers, and the instructor stood at the front of the room. Our new technology space is a more interactive environment, and students work together in pods.
We share a new innovation room with NYU’s Institute for Innovations in Medical Education (IIME) where we do data visualization and 3D printing. IIME does a lot of work in that space with virtual and augmented reality.
We don’t have a reference desk anymore. Our users connect with us through our chat or email service. They can also request a meeting with us through our website.
Q: Do you have advice for other librarians based on your hard-won experience?
JW: Don’t fall victim to a failure of imagination when conducting disaster planning. Think of the full range of things you might one day have to deal with. Be willing to talk about what would happen if your library was destroyed and you had to be closed for a number of months. And create a disaster plan.
We worked with a consultant who helped us put together a 10-page disaster plan. It distills the most important tasks to be done in the first hours after an event. It also includes the 10 people from the library staff on the disaster recovery team and their contact information and roles; contact information for vendors, emergency recovery services, and first responders; a priority list for collections recovery; and more.
DS: The one thing I would add is not to start a new job at the height of hurricane season, but if you’re going to, make sure that the new group is prepared for what has become the inevitable. The TMC Library staff has had many experiences with weather events. The plan that was in place worked well and smoothly, thanks to the fact that so many of our staff members knew just what to do to prepare. We had a good working disaster plan in place. Since Harvey, we have worked to move as many of our computing operations to the cloud as possible. Our website, human resources, and accounting operations, as well as access to electronic resources, now all reside outside the building in a hosted environment.
Disaster Recovery Resources
Disaster Information Management Resources: U.S. National Library of Medicine’s clearinghouse for disaster planning information and resources.
Pocket Response Plan™: Council of State Archivists’ guidance on creating a concise document that records essential information library leadership will need in a disaster or emergency.
Disaster Management Specialist Certification: Trains professionals to access, use, and manage information to support their institutions and communities in planning for, responding to, and recovering from emergencies and disasters.
Mobile Applications: Apps to assist medical libraries during a disaster.