February 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Libraries Respond to Hurricane Sandy, Offering Refuge, WiFi, and Services to Needy Communities

 By Sarah Bayliss, with reporting by Shelley Vale and Mahnaz Dar

At the New Canaan Library. At left: a tech petting zoo became a charging station; center: kids watching a DVD in the graphic novel section; at left: free coffee

About 50 people were waiting to get into the Princeton (NJ) Public Library (PPL) when it managed to open its doors at 11:00 am on Tuesday, October 30, the morning after Hurricane Sandy unleashed its wrath along the East Coast. About 80 percent of Princeton was without power, but PPL was lit, warm, and wired, operated by a skeletal staff and volunteers who were able to maneuver their way, most on foot, through streets laden with downed trees to the downtown library. Adults and kids flooded into PPL with their laptops, preparing to hunker down, play games, read books, and watch family movies until the library’s regular closing time at 9 pm.

Meanwhile, the New Canaan (CT) Library was also open, packed, and buzzing on Tuesday—receiving patrons until 10 pm (usual closing time is 8:00), says teen services librarian Gretchen Kolderup, who estimated that about 75 percent of the city had no electricity. A town curfew had gone into effect early Monday afternoon, sending people home, Kolderup told SLJ in an email, but she got a mid-afternoon call from the city’s office of emergency management saying that the library would open at 9 am Tuesday. Since then, the library has been showing movies, and “everyone—staff, patrons, administration—seems to feel a sense of camaraderie with one another,” Kolderup said, adding that the director had been at the reference desk since the library opening.

PPL had learned from Hurricane Irene how critical its role is in times of disaster, says communications director Tim Quinn. When Irene struck in August 2011, 4,500 people streamed through the library doors, 2,000 more than the daily average. A lot more than 4,500 came yesterday, he says, though the library had not yet tallied a full count of patrons by 7 pm. School was not in session when Irene hit, adds Quinn, and many people were out of town. Not so this time.

Quinn had made his way to the library early Tuesday morning, and seeing that the electricity was up and the WiFi functional, assembled his “worst case scenario” staff—including a non-librarian neighbor who manned the reference desk all day, refusing breaks. The library ran family movies “day and night” its community room, says Quinn, and will continue to do so as long as the schools remain closed this week. The shelves are emptying—“There’s only one copy of any of the ‘Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’ books left,” says youth services librarian Suzanne Savidge—and when the computer outlets filled up, teenagers organized an impromptu chess tournament, with the librarians’ permission.

“It’s wall-to-wall people and children,” Savidge said, adding that “the teenagers are asking, ‘Can’t we have an overnight?’”

While Sandy has spawned other such inspiring stories, the grim extent of the storm’s damage to public and school libraries in harder-hit areas has yet to be determined. Other areas of New Jersey remained in full disaster mode on Wednesday morning.

The South Orange (NJ) Public Library, north of Princeton, was designated the town’s primary evacuation center. Emergency personnel started arriving on Monday. In the storm’s aftermath, patrons are using the library to power and warm up, as many of them had no heat in their homes. Library director Melissa Kopecky says, “We’re always a shelter for the community. We’re doing what we always do.” Staff computers have been made available to the public, people are reading and charging phones in the stacks, and volunteers and stranded students from Rutgers University have stepped in to help out the bustling library.

Like PPL, the Roxbury Public Library in Succasunna, NJ, is one of the few places in town with electricity and, as of 11 am, Internet access. Patrons were waiting outside before the library’s usual hours—prompting staff to open early to help some of the 83 percent of town households and businesses without power. Minimal damage (to a fence) hasn’t deterred staff from their usual schedule, and the scheduled ‘tween Halloween party was still a go. Library director Will Porter stated, “The parking lot is overflowing, and the library is as busy as I’ve ever seen it.”

“My library has been closed since Monday,” said Liz Burns, youth services consultant for the New Jersey State Library for the Blind and Handicapped in Ewing Township, NJ, and SLJ blogger. “There is no power for school libraries and nothing is being done at the moment. A mandatory curfew is in effect from 7 pm to 7 am to keep people off the streets in the dark. There’s not even any kind of emergency power for streetlights.”

In the New York City borough of Queens, where regions were devastated by the storm and fire, “We’ve got four libraries that are in disaster mode that will need reconstruction,” Queens Library CEO Thomas W. Galante told SLJ on Wednesday morning. Three of those libraries suffered flooding from three to five feet, reaching the computer monitors, he says, and causing electrical damage. The entire facade of the Peninsula branch library has crumbled, pushed off by water flowing out of the library building. A fifth library in the Rockaways sustained no structural damage, but has no electricity.

“We are still assessing” how long repairs will take, Galante says, perhaps ”weeks or a month, versus months.” Still, Galante feels that Queens fared “pretty well” from the storm.

Like all New York City libraries, Queens libraries remained closed on October 31. But Galante said that 55 of the 62 Queens branches will be open no November 1, and staff will “help people with any kind of FEMA applications and other services” they need related to the disaster. Children’s programs will run as usual, but Galante noted that staffing will prove difficult because of subway closings.

Other city libraries suffered comparatively little. Angela Montefinise, spokesperson for the New York Public Library (NYPL), said in an email on Wednesday that the 90 NYPL branches in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island had sustained virtually no structural damage. However, they were contending with minor flooding as well as power outages.

Damage to New York City school libraries had not yet been fully assessed. “Most of the New York City school buildings are closed, and I don’t have a sense of the damage yet,” Richard Hasenyager, director of library services at New York City Department of Education, told SLJ October 30. Hasenyager held out a bit of cautious optimism for the city’s school libraries, however: “Many of our school libraries are located on the second floor. Many times we complain about it, but at times like this, we’re very happy.”

“Our facilities group is assessing the situation and we are not to bother them, Hasenyager said October 31 in a follow-up email. “They will be presenting an update soon, but I don’t know when.”

But with much of lower Manhattan and coastal areas of other boroughs flooded, a vast swath of Manhattan below 34th Street still without power due to an explosion at a 14th Street Con Ed substation, and subway stations brimming with damaging salt water, it’s not yet clear how long Sandy will keep the city in a holding pattern. As subways remained inoperable at press time, New York City public schools were closed through Thursday, November 1.

Elizabeth Naylor-Gutierrez, the NYC DOE’s library coordinator for Manhattan and Queens, pointed out that “First responders are looking at residential buildings, not schools,” so conditions are difficult to assess. Similarly, Freeport, Long Island, high school librarian Rose Luna had no idea what condition her school library would be in, since Freeport, in a flood zone, has more urgent problems: over 80 percent without power, and ocean waters gushing into homes as far as two miles from shore, she said. Because her school library is also on the second floor, she remained somewhat hopeful.

In the meantime, the question of what to do with, and say to, anxious children posed a challenge. FEMA director Craig Fugate encouraged parents to read with their children, according to a news report, and readers Tweeted their top picks at #StormReads. On WNYC Radio’s Brian Lehrer show October 30, Rosemarie Truglio, Sesame Street’s vice president of education and research, teamed up live with Elmo, reassuring frightened child callers who were biding their time at home, and doling out tips to adults about what to say to young kids about the storm. (Listeners were encouraged to tweet questions to @briahlehrer). Truglio’s main points: Keep your routine, listen closely to your child’s questions, don’t give them more information than they can handle, and empower kids by helping them with clean-up and other post-storm efforts as is appropriate.

Sesame Street also offers a hurricane coping kit, and a Youtube video (below) showing staff brainstorming and filming of a hurricane-themed show in which Big Bird’s nest is destroyed. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network site provides more suggestions on how to help children during this time.

Meanwhile, at the New Canaan Library, Kolderup and staff have been handing out cards to new patrons and coaching others in how to use ebooks. She said, “We’re turning the storm into community goodwill, recruitment, an outreach.”



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  1. Judith wakeman says:

    Great story that demonstrates the complexity, flexibility and humanity embedded in libraries, and why these elements, and thereby libraries, must be an essential component of any community. And thank you for the Semame street clip – it does indeed validate it”s longstanding success in children’s education.

  2. After a week of no power I had to go to Succasunna to donate blood for tests and saw the Roxbury Library open. I wish to thank everyone involved running and keeping it open. Not only heat, cookies and coffee I was able to get on the internet and let my family and friends across the country know I was OK. The library was literally packed but the help were so cheerful it made me and I think every else forget how bad things were. Once again I would like to say “thanks”.


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