There has been a lot written, in this blog and in other publications, about the role libraries and librarians can play in helping communities that experience a natural disaster. Children’s librarians play an especially important role in providing kids and families with resources for recovery and resiliency. But library staff are also going through the disaster and aftermath themselves. Having gone through two major hurricanes, 16 years apart to the day, I would like to share what I’ve learned about taking care of the library’s greatest asset during and after a disaster-the staff.
On August 28, 2005, I evacuated with my family to Houston from South Louisiana ahead of Hurricane Katrina. On August 28, 2021, I evacuated to Houston with my family from South Louisiana ahead of Hurricane Ida. That first time I was the Children’s Coordinator for my library system and was directly responsible for only one staff member. This time I am an assistant director and responsible for a team of nine managers and 150 staff members in total. There are several other differences. But also many things that are the same.
Communication is a vital part of your library’s disaster preparedness plan. Hurricane season begins in June. In May we ask every staff member to update their cell phone number, emergency contact name and number, and if they were to evacuate, where they might end up along with contact info (if they have a predetermined place to land.) In a wind and rain disaster, phone service is not reliable. A lot of people had a cell phone in 2005, but cell service was overwhelmed. That was the year a lot of us learned how to text!
It’s important to have texting trees so that everyone can be updated in a timely and regular manner. The tree should work both ways. Administration should contact managers, managers contact staff, staff contact managers, etc. This year, one of the major cell phone providers lost important signal towers. If you subscribe to that carrier, you did not have phone service- voice or text- for a few days. Having an alternative number and an alternative way to communicate is essential.
Which brings us to email. We host our email ourselves on a server in our administration building. Our IT manager likes to have control. Guess what? If a couple of trees fall on your building along with the electricity poles on the street- you don’t have access to email! In the next few weeks we will be moving to Outlook 365. Social media was barely a thing in 2005 (Myspace!). But in 2021 most staff have personal Facebook accounts. Once we realized that Ida knocked out access to our email server, we created a private Facebook group for staff. This was an efficient way to send out daily updates from our director. Between the Facebook group and texting we had complete coverage of staff. During the aftermath of Katrina it was days and days before we heard from some staff. That was really scary.
One thing that was the same for both Katrina and Ida, and any other natural disaster, is that every person’s life is upended. Some people have no power for days or even weeks. Some people cannot live in their homes and find themselves miles away from where they work. Gasoline is in short supply for a couple of days to a couple of weeks after. Children cannot go to school and child care centers may not be open. Other than communication, the most important thing to do to help staff after a disaster is to have compassion and a sense of community amongst your work team.
A week after Ida we were able to open three of our 12 branches. It took us about two weeks to open one branch after Katrina. In both cases anyone who could come to work came (because they are dedicated to helping our patrons.) And no one begrudged the staff who couldn’t make it in. Those who could cook brought hot food for lunch, because some staff were living out of ice chests and restaurants weren’t open yet. Everyone was doing their best.
Three weeks after Ida hit, things are fairly back to normal at St. Tammany Parish Library with all branches open and the majority of staff with electricity. The recovery phase is not over by any means. Some staff have meetings with adjusters and contractors. Some staff need to take a longer lunch break, come in later or leave early, or work from home for a day if their position allows for that. Administrators and managers need to be understanding and kind. Another similarity amongst natural disasters is that people come together as a community and support each other in ways that we take for granted normally. We see the best in our coworkers.
Obligatory Cat Photo
Experiencing and writing about natural disasters is hard on the mind, soul, and body. But even in the face of catastrophic suffering, it’s good to find something to smile about. Here is my cat Charlie. He thinks our downed fence is his personal deck for lounging.
This blog post was published three weeks after Ida made landfall. I am lucky that my own home received minor damage and that my community is recovering fairly quickly. Many, many communities in South Louisiana are not doing as well, however, and are still without power, roofs, or even homes. Ida also wreaked havoc in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. To learn more about how to prepare your library for a natural disaster, visit ALA’s Disaster Preparedness and Recovery resource page at www.ala.org/advocacy/disaster-preparedness.
Today’s blog post was written by Tanya DiMaggio, Assistant Director of Support Services, at St. Tammany Parish Library in Louisiana, on behalf of the ALSC Managing Children’s Services Committee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This blog relates to ALSC Core Competency VI. Administrative and Management Skills.