February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Building Our Way Back: School Libraries Recover from Disasters

Clockwise from left: District librarian Sunshine Copeland with a makeshift hallway “rolling cart library” at the high school; students at Mauriceville Middle School  in the library before Harvey; the library in recovery mode.
From left: Photo courtesy of Sunshine Copeland, Orangefield ISD; Jennifer Marcantel, Mauriceville Middle School.

When Jennifer Marcantel left her library at Mauriceville (TX) Middle School (MMS) on the Friday before school was set to start, she never imagined it would be the last time she saw it clean and dry.

On August 28, the first scheduled day of school, rain from Hurricane Harvey hit Mauriceville, a small, unincorporated community near the Louisiana border, causing historic flooding. It took several weeks before Marcantel was even allowed to enter the facility. What she saw was shocking.

“I had 13 inches of water in my library,” she says. “All of my [bottom-shelf] books and the bottom shelves were ruined.” The school is not expected to reopen until fall 2018.

The storm hit shortly after the annual Meet the Teacher event at MMS, when many students come in and leave their new school supplies in the classrooms in preparation for classes starting. “All of that was lost,” says Marcantel. “The water just took everything. It was terrible. We’re still kind of walking around in a daze.”

The Mauriceville community was hardly alone. Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane on the Texas Gulf Coast on August 25. It stalled over southeast Texas for days, soaking some areas with more than 40 inches of rain.

While the national news has moved on, these schools and districts are still recovering—and librarians are handling insurance claims while serving students awaiting restored facilities.

“It was devastating,” says Wendy Woodland, director of communications for the Texas Library Association (TLA), of Harvey. “Almost 60 counties were impacted. Along the Gulf Coast and in the Houston area specifically, entire school districts were shut down. There are still public libraries and schools that haven’t been able to reopen.”

Nearly 1.5 million students were directly affected, in that the storm damaged either their homes or their schools. More than 200 school districts had what the state classified as significant damage, in the $100,000 to $500,000 range, while Texas listed more than 50 districts as having catastrophic damage, with repair estimates exceeding $500,000.

A makeshift library “closet”

Recovering from damage like that is certainly not easy—it takes lots of time and money to build back what was lost. In the interim, school librarians are finding creative ways to provide students a sense of normalcy.

Students at MMS are currently sharing a campus with the district’s high school. They attend classes in the morning, while the high school students go to class in the afternoon.

The middle school children were without a library until Marcantel carved out a unique space for one. She found a storage closet with four tall shelves and turned it into what she calls a library closet. “We’re just making do the best way we can,” she says.

Her “make do” library features 150 books that three reading teachers salvaged from the old middle school, but the majority were donated following the storm.

“I’ve been scrounging up book pockets and old library check-out cards, and the kids are signing their names on the cards in order to check them out like we used to do in the old days,” Marcantel says. “They’re getting a kick out of it.”

Something as simple as checking out books in a new way can help students forget the troubles they’re facing, at least for a little while. Of course, they’re not the only ones suffering. Several of Marcantel’s colleagues lost their homes to Harvey’s flooding. Her home was one of three spared in her neighborhood.

Danis Hayes counts herself lucky in that regard as well. Harvey only uprooted some large trees in her yard. But that wasn’t the case for many of her colleagues in the coastal Aransas Pass (TX) Independent School District, where she is the district librarian.

Harvey did so much damage to the district’s five schools that classes didn’t start until October 16, and A.C. Blunt Middle School was so severely affected that it remains closed. Administrators hope to reopen it in January.

“We lost everything from ceiling to floor, all the books, all the shelving, all the computers, everything,” says Hayes, who is still trying to sort out the insurance claim related to the storm damage. She’s not sure how much it’s going to cost to fully restore what was lost but knows it won’t come cheap.

“We had over 5,000 books, and an estimate of the cost would be about $100,000 just for the books alone,” says Hayes. Marcantel’s library lost more than 6,500 books.

The library at Lemm Elementary School in Spring, TX, after Hurricane Harvey.
Photo courtesy of Klein ISD, Lemm Elementary School

Disaster planning

Susan Gauthier knows what these librarians are facing. She is director of library services for East Baton Rouge Parish (LA) Schools, which were impacted by the devastating 2016 flood there.

The August flood occurred after school had been in session for a couple of weeks. Flooding caused students to miss weeks of school, and the district lost several school buses. Eight school libraries were flooded, and two lost their entire collections.

“We’re still in the process of rebuilding those collections,” says Gauthier. “We’re still applying and getting FEMA money. It’s just a slow, slow process.”

Gauthier offers the following advice for librarians when it comes to dealing with natural disasters:

Install an automated system, such as Destiny Library Manager. It makes figuring out what has been lost a lot easier.

Conduct inventory on a regular basis. Gauthier says having inventory readily available, along with the Destiny reports, allowed her to make reports showing what was lost and how much each book costs as well as other information such as ISBNs. “It saved us a lot of time, and it also helped us start getting our money from FEMA a lot quicker,” she says.

Develop a disaster relief plan. It’s important to know how you would handle an emergency before it happens.

Encourage those who want to help to donate money, not books. It takes a lot of staff or volunteers to sort through books, and some, such as old encyclopedias, are inappropriate.

Make ebooks available. After the flood, Gauthier’s circulation of fiction ebooks rose more than 200 percent.

In Mauriceville, by the time Marcantel’s library is restored and the books replaced, Marcantel won’t be there. The 30-year school librarian will retire at the end of the year.

“It was hard knowing that I’m probably not ever going to be back in that library,” she says. “I miss being able to do the lessons and the fun things with the kids, because in that little closet you can’t do much. You can only get five kids in there at a time.”

Meanwhile, TLA has donated more than $100,000 from its disaster relief fund to help 25 libraries, including those at A.C. Blunt and Mauriceville Middle Schools, recover from Harvey.

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This article was published in School Library Journal's January 2018 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Marva Hinton About Marva Hinton

Marva Hinton is a contributing writer for Education Week and the host of the ReadMore podcast, a show that features interviews with authors including Nicola Yoon and Daniel José Older.

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