Hurricane Katrina and the Library's Collections

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 the basement of the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library--an area about the size of a football field--was flooded by more than eight feet of water. The area housed a music library and very large collections of government documents, newspapers, and microforms. Jones Hall across the parking lot houses the library's Special Collections and its basement filled with about four feet of water.

Recovery Center

To rebuild collections damaged or lost to Hurricane Katrina, the library created the Tulane Libraries Recovery Center to handle more than 1 million restored items, donations, and initial replacement purchases. The Recovery Center represents a library recovery of historic scale.

As a result, in the Howard-Tilton building alone more than 700,000 of the library’s individual print volumes and recordings were submerged underwater, as were nearly 1.5 million individual pieces of microform such as microfilm reels and microfiche cards.  In Jones Hall another 700,000 or so manuscript folders and other archival items also needed to be salvaged.

In those initial days after Katrina, both these library buildings--especially the large Howard-Tilton main library--became ticking time bombs for their collections. Their deep basement lakes produced rapidly growing humidity while the loss of power shut off any circulating air.  Being mid-summer in New Orleans at the time, the interior temperature in these closed-off structures began to climb dangerously.  Mold is toxic to library collections and this was the worst-case scenario for a library disaster of historic scale.

The disaster management company BELFOR was called to the scene within days for early reconnaissance, as part of Tulane's campus-wide emergency plan.  After the water receded from campus, BELFOR trucks navigated through surrounding downed trees and power lines to bring in a battery of huge generators and specialized equipment. Then in both library buildings engineers installed an elaborate series of giant tubes to pump dry air throughout each floor in danger.  A battle against humidity and mold was very quickly begun, while the city was closed off to all but military and emergency personnel. Within four weeks of the storm, water from the lower levels of each building was removed.

Once drained, the basement spaces of the Howard-Tilton building bore little if any resemblance to the same spaces pre-Katrina.  Furniture and in some cases shelving had floated to different locations.  Walls, floors, and all contents were coated with muck and slime.  This had become a foul, dank 40,000 square foot cave whose pathways through the dark debris were lit only by the occasional bare bulb from utility lamps strung along yellow extension cords.  Face masks were mandatory and BELFOR workers used these trails to remove selected library collections in dark sacks that resembled body bags.  

The Maxwell Music Library in the basement held more than 43,000 titles including books, scores, journals, CDs, LPs, and more. In general, the salvage operation was focused on our print materials, which had less chance of eventual replacement and a better chance for restoration. Amidst the soggy wreckage, more than 70 percent of our printed books and scores were salvaged for restoration. No recordings could be saved.

Nearby the Government Documents area held the largest amount of print material with well over 500,000 volumes. About 10 percent of this collection was salvaged, a selected portion of older print materials thought to be difficult to replace.  Nearly all of the salvaged government documents were trapped in compact storage units no longer functional and that had to be ripped apart to get at the soupy material inside.  

A very large Microforms area on the north side of the basement held perhaps the richest collections of those flooded in the main building: more than 30,000 titles of facsimile collections of rare or scholarly material and newspaper archives.  Nearly 1.5 million individual pieces of microform in all.   Sadly, less than five percent of these materials could be selectively salvaged because of the damage that lengthy immersion in dirty water can do to microforms, especially in formats such as fiche or microcard.

Also salvaged for restoration from the Howard-Tilton basement were all 16,000 or so items from a "protected storage" area with compact shelving that housed a large number of important books in art and photography (including many catalogues raisonnes) and a cataloging backlog of several thousand other important printed works. 

There were other areas of the Howard-Tilton basement where collections has been housed.  These included a second storage area with bound volumes of older science journals and a large area of open shelving adjacent to the Microforms area that had housed a varied mix of materials--such as newspapers, more government documents, geo-political reports, and books from the Howard Collection,which was one of the first library collections acquired by the university.  None of those materials could be salvaged, given the wreckage and difficult conditions in those areas.   

In the Jones Hall basement an effort was made to retrieve everything of value, more than 4,000 boxes of material overall.  These are archival collections comprised largely of historical manuscripts but also other primary source archival materials for research that included registration cards, film reels, magnetic tape (recordings,) newspapers, books, posters, matted prints and other art work, cartoons, photographs, lithographs, ledgers, diaries, journals, scrapbooks, and miscellaneous ephemera.

Overall, more than 300,00 important print volumes, 18,000 reels of microfilm, and 629,711 archival items affected by the storm were salvaged and, remarkably, restored through a highly technical and elaborate process to varying degrees of useable condition.  After the restoration process they were returned to be reintegrated into the library’s collections through a monumental effort called the Tulane Libraries Recovery Center.

The upper floors in both library buildings, and the collections on them, were saved from mold although each structure, especially the main Howard-Tilton building, sustained severe lasting physical damages.  

Seven years later, temperature and humidity control in the main Howard-Tilton building is still being provided by a now aging battery of temporary HVAC units, with air distributed throughout each floor by long semi-inflated tubes hung from the ceilings and attached through the windows along the back of the building to eight galvanized metal towers.  The building’s giant basement remains gutted and empty, as does the basement level in Jones Hall. 

But both buildings were miraculously open for that first, vital post-Katrina spring 2006 semester.  Now plans have been drawn for a large-scale building remediation project and in the meantime we have been steadily restoring and rebuilding our collections.

In summary, much was lost but remarkable work was and is still being done in this.  While there have been major losses, the rapid response and salvage effort were examples of remarkable professionalism and logistical and technical expertise at a time when it appeared from media reports that nothing like this could be found in New Orleans in the wake of the storm. (See more photos.)

Andy Corrigan
Associate Dean of Libraries

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