Thursday, November 1, 2012

30th Year Reflections/22: Before "Sandy"

“News coverage and reports from state libraries offered little information about damage to public and academic libraries in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which hit the Atlantic Coast five miles southwest of Atlantic City, New Jersey, on the evening of October 29….An unconfirmed report from a staff member at the Queens Library in New York City suggests that three branches on the Rockaway peninsula of Long Island were flooded.” — American Libraries

Libraries and librarians will probably live through at least one storm in the course of their career. For me the storm to end all storms occurred in Chicago over the course of a couple of days in the summer of 1987. I was new to the job, having been on site for less than two months. I did not have a firm grasp of all the collections under my care, but knew where they were housed, including a storeroom and hall lockers, both in the basement. I also knew a bit about the building in which everything was kept. Most of the collection was on the second floor, high above any potential danger from flooding or water damage. The building, which I shared with a graduate program, had a history of basement flooding given its close location to the north branch of the Chicago River and the presence of floor drains on the lower level connected to the city storm sewers.

And so it was a matter of some concern when the skies opened late on a midsummer day and continued to rain into the night. I lived a short distance from my office and so late in the evening went over to investigate the state of affairs. Everything was still dry. But the rains continued overnight and the next morning I was up early, back to a building that scared me. On arriving, I had reason to be frightened. The tiles on the basement floor were weeping water around the grout lines. There was no standing water on the floor and nothing near the floor drains, but I was concerned all the same. I went immediately to the basement storeroom and started to move things off the floor and from the lower shelves. I did not finish the job in time.

The building housing my collections had another feature, one that came into play an hour after I arrived: it was connected to other buildings on campus by steam tunnels that delivered hot water/steam heat to the building. Unbeknownst to me these tunnels were flooding and by 8:30 in the morning they were nearly full. The water had no where to go except through the breaks in the foundation walls where the steam pipes entered the building. It was as if someone turned on a fire hose as water streamed into the basement hallway from the tunnel.

Overnight, because of the constant rain, the river rose. It was nearly over its banks by morning. This compounded the issue because in other places of the city the river was already over its banks and—combined with the rain—overwhelming the storm sewers. This change in hydro-dynamic pressure soon was apparent as the floor drains in the basement, along with the basement stools and urinals in the two bathrooms, began to bubble up like fountains. Water came in through every available opening. In a matter of minutes the water rose to the level of the first step on the basement stairs and continued rising throughout the morning. Ankle deep in contaminated water, with no real protection or adequate boots, I went back to the storeroom and continued moving materials to higher shelves. Items left on the floor and in the hallway lockers were a lost cause, the moisture wicking up through stacks of books and periodicals. Thankfully, I knew enough about the collections to recognize that most of this material was duplicate and could be sacrificed. It was the stuff I didn’t know about that caused the most concern.

By midday—still waiting for large pumps to evacuate the water from the basement—I was wrapping damp materials in brown craft paper and trucking it over to a walk-in freezer made available to me by the campus food service. Later, with my director’s permission, I bought another freezer off the Sears showroom floor and had it delivered, set-up, and available for more materials. It would take weeks and months to work through the aftermath of the flood. Other buildings were damaged, some more important that mine to the overall operations of the campus. It was, in many ways, a baptism by fire (or more appropriate, flood) and one that came with many lessons I’ve retained and used again over the years. Thankfully, I’ve never lived through another storm like that, but I have some empathy with what is now happening on the East Coast.

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