Magazine article American Libraries

Houston Braves the Storm and Shares the Burden

Magazine article American Libraries

Houston Braves the Storm and Shares the Burden

Article excerpt

When the devastating floods from Tropical Storm Allison swept eastern Texas (AL, Aug., p. 15-16), the Houston Public Library responded with a dynamic relief effort called Staff Helping Staff @ the Library. Epitomizing the library's team spirit, Staff Helping Staff was a bright ray that pierced what was a dark time for many.

From June 5 through June 9, Tropical Storm Allison zigzagged through the area, dropping approximately 28 inches of rain on Houston and leaving behind damage estimated at $4.88 billion. Many areas that had never experienced flooding were caught unprepared for the massive flood that overflowed the city's bayous.

On the morning of June 11, HPL's executive management team quickly organized a grass-roots committee headed by Deputy Director of Administration Sahira Abdool. "We had to act fast, so we recruited staff members who could make things happen," Abdool said. "And they did!" Within a few hours, the committee had set up teams to gather information on the damage suffered by staff, set up a drive for goods, plan distribution, coordinate cash donations, and prepare crews for help with the cleanup. Phone lines were down in many areas, so the teams worked primarily by word of mouth to locate the hundreds of employees who work at the library's 37 branches. They followed trails of secondhand information and searched for staff in shelters until within days everyone was accounted for.

The numbers were startling--more than 80 staff members were personally affected. Of these, 21 experienced significant losses, and 12 lost everything they had-homes, possessions, cars. Circulation department staffer Angelica Garcia said, "These people had no hope. When I reached them, they were so depressed and worried. But even the fact that we called made a difference. After we talked about what they needed and how we could help, people were more positive. One woman told me that 'everything was going to be OK' because she knew that she wasn't alone."

Assessment forms were filled out for every affected staff member, including lists of immediate and specific needs and updated contact information. All were asked if cleanup assistance would be needed. Many of the affected staff members graciously declined assistance because they felt that there were others more in need of help. A careful and thorough tally was made and the call for help went out to every library employee.

On Father's Day, seven days after the flooding, our flood-relief drive took place. For hours that morning, donations poured in to the loading dock of the Central Library: food, toys, household appliances, cleaning supplies, toiletries, and clothing for all ages-all sorted and categorized with the efficiency you would expect from librarians!.

"What amazes me is that we actually got what we asked for," said Circulation Manager Fred Schumacker. "No one dumped their junk." The day was filled with hope and good spirits, and volunteers worked together without a single complaint, even when viciously attacked by the clouds of mosquitoes that had taken over the city. Boxes labeled with the names of those hardest hit grew on the dock, as team leaders moved among the volunteers. "We need women's office clothes, size 14, with some casual men's medium shirts." "Would a teen girl like these shoes?" "Oh! She'll love this!" Problems worked themselves out with a magical ease: Having all but given up on finding jeans for a young boy in the correct size, volunteers were surprised when a donation arrived with several pieces that fit--freshly drycleaned.

Within only four hours, hundreds of carefully selected items were packed in library vans, a labor of love performed by 40 staff members and friends. Several loads of surplus clothing were driven to Star of Hope, a local mission. The flood-relief drivers included Director of Libraries Barbara A. …

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