On Monday, October 29, as Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast, New Jersey’s swollen Shrewsbury River sent two feet of water into the Oceanport Public Library. “We were left with books in the middle of the floor,” says librarian Kate Hardy. “We lost the whole collection.” Because of mold and sewage, even not-so-soggy titles had to go—which meant the library lost 18,000 items worth $380,000. “At some level, the assumption is that all books, even if they’re not wet, are contaminated,” says Ken Sheinbaum, director of the 13-branch Monmouth County Library system, which includes Oceanport. “We don’t want to give those books out to kids.” In his 41 years with the Monmouth County libraries, he says, “this is the first time we’ve ever closed for more than a day for an act of God.”
Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on libraries, schools, and bookstores throughout New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Connecticut, and it hurt business at many more. Bibliophiles and publishing professionals stepped in to aid in the ongoing relief efforts. Random House (distributing through First Book, a nonprofit that provides books to children from low-income families) and Scholastic (distributing through Kids in Distressed Situations, a New York–based nonprofit that helps in-need families) are each donating a million books to schools and libraries in the hardest-hit areas. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt committed to donate 70,000 books through First Book, and Simon & Schuster offered to send any damaged school or library 500 popular titles and multiple copies of 20 new releases. So far 28 schools and libraries, plus a handful of other organizations, have received the S&S titles. And Dollar General Literacy Foundation (with the American Library Association, the American Association of School Librarians, and the National Education Association) is giving disaster-relief grants to help public school libraries replace books and other supplies.
From Hurricane Katrina, relief groups learned “not to rush it,” says Chandler Arnold, executive v-p of First Book. “There’s a hierarchy of need—clean water and warm space and food. Then very quickly, some groups [realized], ‘We do need stories for kids who are in temporary shelters.’ ” Libraries needed time to clean out mold and rebuild, he adds. “You don’t want to restock books with dampness there.”
To make sure mold and sewage water did not contaminate everything, four of the 62 Queens, N.Y., public libraries most severely hurt in the storm (three in the Rockaways and one in Broad Channel, which reopened last month) shipped books to the Allentown, Pa., facility of Rapid Refile, where high-efficiency vacuums sucked away residual matter. (Volumes in worse condition went through a bacteria-killing gamma-radiation machine.) That saved 50,000 books. But these four libraries had to discard some 100,000 others that were too soggy or waterlogged, or paperbacks that would be cheaper to replace than to preserve. With more valuable books, it was worthwhile to spend $1 to $2 each to decontaminate what looked normal to “the untrained eye,” says James Gilbert, v-p of Rapid Refile. “They’re basically ready to go now, but the buildings aren’t ready for them to come back. We have them in our climate-controlled storage.”
One of the Rockaway libraries, the Arverne branch, filled with four-and-a-half feet of water and is currently operating out of a doublewide trailer, stuffed with about 2,000 books and 1,500 DVDs. The library lost about 80 percent of its collection, says Shakira Smalls, the jobs and youth counselor. At the Peninsula branch (operating out of a modular unit now), where surging water broke the glass entrance, “materials were actually floating out the door,” says chief operating officer Bridget Quinn-Carey. “After the water receded, there literally were books on the street, on the plaza.”
At the East Rockaway Public Library, even after the power returned, staff members couldn’t turn on the heat because it would “speed up the process of mold growth,” says library director Elizabeth Charvat. Two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, outside remediation experts covered shelves with plastic wrap to protect the books from mold. The library reopened February 2.
In the Yonkers, N.Y., public library’s Riverfront branch, 300 books, which Disney-Hyperion donated when it moved from White Plains, N.Y., to Los Angeles, were awaiting cataloging when the storm hit, covering them with five feet of overflowing Hudson River water. The water also drenched 300 of the library’s summer-reading titles and classics.
The still-closed Island Park Public Library, in Nassau County, N.Y., filled with three feet of seawater and some sewage water, ruining the bottom two shelves of its first-floor stacks—where many children’s books were placed so kids could reach them. “We’ll never know how many items we lost because we didn’t have time to count,” says director Michelle Young, whose library remains closed. And because the storm was so unprecedented, she adds, “It’s not like anyone can say, ‘I know this kind of thing takes six months [to recover from].’ ” The $500,000 insurance policy won’t go far, according to Young, and the library has not yet received any FEMA reimbursement. It will, eventually, because FEMA now considers libraries essential community organizations and pays for the replacement of library books and publications. In the meantime, although many people want to drop off used novels, the library can only accept new ones. “We don’t want mold to come in,” she explains. “It could hurt the whole collection. You put a bunch of moldy books in there, and you can cross contaminate the air.”
When it comes to getting FEMA money, not all libraries are created equal. Hurricane Sandy dumped more than eight inches of rain on Elyria, Ohio, shutting down the power in the main branch of the public library for more than 36 hours—which meant the sump pumps didn’t work. As a result, four inches of water accumulated in the basement and the elevator shaft there filled with eight feet of water. The old floor tile loosened and curled, requiring more than $10,000 worth of asbestos abatement. The total damage: $100,000. Though the books were unscathed, the library—not in the official FEMA disaster zone—needed to reduce new acquisitions for 2013 by 12 percent to pay for the losses. “That is where we had to pull the money for disaster recovery,” says library director Lyn Crouse. Simon & Schuster sent a mix of 500 children’s, YA, and adult books. (Eleven of the Queens libraries also received shipments from S&S.) “Some of the stories that I’ve gotten about the books lost in the school libraries—many because they were checked out and in homes that were destroyed—just moved me to tears,” says Michelle Fadlalla, director of education and library marketing for S&S. “We had a couple of public libraries say, ‘We’re not sure if you’ll consider us eligible, but now any money we had for 2013 to purchase materials is going to replace damaged equipment.’ ”
School and Bookstore Losses
At schools, book losses hit classrooms and afterschool programs as well as libraries. Hurricane Sandy flooded the basement and seeped into the Sheetrock walls of Frank Hankinson Elementary (P.S. 50) in Staten Island, N.Y., destroying the area that housed the preschool program and the mini-library-on-wheels for an afterschool program. “Ten days after the storm, the room started to smell a little funky,” says Sharon Fine, who retired in January 2013 as the principal. “We started to move furniture, and everything was green.” Hankinson Elementary threw out more than 1,000 books, in addition to toys and furniture. But in January the students returned to a plethora of new books provided through Literacy Lifeboats, an initiative aimed at helping teachers and students in schools hard hit by Hurricane Sandy. It started with the Teachers College (Columbia University) Reading and Writing Project, a youth-literacy program.
The Project—“affiliated with a lot of literary giants,” as its reading specialist Cheryl Tyler notes—reached out to authors such as Tomie dePaola, who gave “hundreds and hundreds of books.” Other big-name donors include Jon Scieszka, Walter Dean Myers, and Jane Yolen. “We received donations from all over the world—Thailand, France, Sweden, Canada,” Tyler says. “We had books in the hands of kids within three weeks.”
The Our Learning Environment preschool in Island Park, N.Y., wound up under four-and-a-half feet of water and “lost everything,” including more than 1,000 books, says Danielle Urrego, co-owner, director, and teacher. Simon & Schuster sent 500 new picture books. “It was like Christmas morning here,” says Urrego. “We’re barely making ends meet. This saved the day.”
Booksellers suffered major losses as well. The tide came in so high that the Mystic River sent six inches of water into parts of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn. With the help of volunteers, co-owner Annie Philbrick moved somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 kids’ books the day after the storm to an empty apartment upstairs from the shop, and temporarily packed 35,000 adult books into 400 crates and hauled them in two Mayflower moving vans to a storage facility two miles away. It took three weeks to dry out the walls and floors of the store and get it ready to reopen, with the help of books donated by Simon & Schuster, Penguin, Hachette, and Macmillan, among others. “People came in at Christmas and said, ‘Thank God, you’re back,’ ” says Philbrick. “We were grateful and appreciative of all the community support we received to help us get back up and running.”
Like several other bookstores, River Road Books in Fair Haven, N.J.—four miles from the ocean and a block from a river—suffered from lost business more than from lost books. “It wasn’t your top priority to go shopping,” says co-owner Karen Rumage. S&S donated books to it and to six other bookstores hit by power outages and damage to the communities surrounding them.
But even with publishers, philanthropists, and book lovers giving generously, librarians are finding that some items are irreplaceable. Joan Walsh, director of the tiny Sea Bright Library in Monmouth County, N.J., notes that her collections included “a lot of treasures,” such as old postcards and original diplomas from the local elementary school. The library hasn’t reopened yet. Nor has the West End branch of the Long Beach, N.Y., library system, which discarded more than $95,000 worth of books, films, and DVDs—in other words, everything—after it filled with three feet of water. “For the construction industry, there’s a silver lining,” says George Trepp, director of the Long Beach Public Library. But for book lovers? He pauses. “Not so much.”