Spring 2007

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When Disaster Strikes... Go to the Library

By State Senator Hugh T. Farley, Chair, Senate Subcommittee on Libraries

Spring 2007 issue of Trustee

Libraries have long played a significant role as community centers. Given the high level of public comfort with libraries as a safe, and useful, haven, this role is evolving into that of a major community resource during disasters and emergencies.

Much of the literature on this development comes from Gulf Coast states where annual community-wide hurricane season preparations are a practiced art.The traditional information role of libraries is a cornerstone of community disaster preparedness. Red Cross agencies in northern Florida, for example, built their "Disaster Resistant Neighborhoods" initiative around "Library Information Centers" featuring resources such as "how to" videos ranging from "Protecting Your Home From Hurricane Wind Damage" to "Jason and Robin's Awesome Disaster Adventure."
A developing role for libraries is that of direct information assistance in the wake of a disaster. A 2006 study of Internet access through libraries found that post-disaster computer access helped library patrons locate displaced friends and relatives, download and fill out FEMA and insurance forms, and obtain current news about conditions.

Increasingly, Gulf Coast libraries are being tapped to provide direct aid. A study of the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons found libraries serving as shelters for evacuees, running day camps for children whose schools were closed, filling water bottles, providing electricity for recharging communications devices, and distributing food and water.

One report cited a Florida community where a bookmobile with wireless access was provided to emergency workers who had no other means of communication. And, in Pasco County, Florida, the public library staff are formally assigned to operate the county's Resident Information Center which serves as an information gateway for emergency management before, during, and after storms.

Given the often ad hoc nature of library involvement in disaster management, authors of the 2006 study recommend that libraries be formally included in community-wide disaster planning initiatives. The involvement can include formal training of library personnel, inclusion of the library in training exercises, and specific funding -- through homeland security or other emergency services accounts -- for disaster-related library activities.

Although we do not usually have to cope with the annual ravages of hurricane season, New Yorkers face winter's fury, regular spring flooding, and unpredictable local emergencies. As a trustee, you may want to establish lines of communication with your local emergency planners, so that your library is prepared to provide emergency services when they are needed in your community.

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