Ruth L. Slagle, M.L.I.S.
Instruction and Outreach Librarian
Ida J. McMillan Library
The Baptist College of Florida
Hurricane Michael was an unexpected and catastrophic event. While I grew up in South Florida, where hurricanes frequently hit coming out of the Caribbean, never have I had to deal with the long-term clean up or the resulting emotions relating to such an event. I just so happened to be out of town the week it came. Once I knew from the news that it was going to be at least a Cat. 3, I was in shock that the campus was not better prepared. I am a Hurricane Andrew survivor, along with countless others, yet I know it caught the Panhandle unprepared. However, you prepare for the worst, but how can you when you do not know what nature will do? I called my co-worker the day before it was scheduled to hit, and the library had the crazy foresight to leave the plastic tarps on top of the bookshelves from the previous year’s preparations for Hurricane Irma. It was one less thing to ask maintenance to do. So, the Administrative Assistant to the Library Director, four months pregnant, and two student workers stood on chairs, pulling the tarps down to cover the books. Looking back now, there really was not much more we could do in the library to prepare. So often times natural disasters are ‘wait and see’. When Wednesday, October 10, 2018, rolled around the storm made landfall as a Cat. 5 in Mexico Beach, FL, Michael decimated the coast. It moved into Georgia, sustaining winds at 161 MPH and moving at 13 MPH. It broke all the records as the strongest storm to make landfall in the Florida Panhandle. So, how do you prepare for such a monstrosity? Hurricane Michael tore through Jackson County’s seat, Marianna, on US 90 as a Cat. 3 with sustained winds at 115 MPH; Marianna is located 24 miles southeast of Graceville. The county shares the state lines of Alabama and Georgia. So, was the campus really not prepared? Or did they do the best they could? The entire Panhandle, from Leon to Okaloosa County also were not prepared. First Responders came from all over the state and the US to help our area recover. Linemen and tree cutters worked 14-hour days to restore power. I know the area will be eternally grateful for the compassion they showed.
I drove back on Sunday of the following week. It was what, I imagine, driving through a warzone would be like. All the beautiful trees were snapped in half. Fields of cotton and peanuts were stripped bare. It is estimated that over $90 million dollars was lost in crops and $1.3 billion in timber. The consequences of such a storm are unfathomable for it will economically and socially affect the area for many years to come. Thank God, my apartment was miraculously not damaged. I just lost power for 6 days, and had mystery water puddles in my apartment from my fridge leaking. Thus, I lost a few items. They say, if you are a strong person you can make it through tough times. It is true, only through leaning on God did I actually make it. I had to go inside myself to pull out the strength I knew He had given me, only then have I been able to make it to the other side. Hurricane Michael went through in a day and a half, but the aftermath has lasted well over a year. Everyday waking up and not knowing what was going to happen, frayed my nerves completely.
On Tuesday, after the storm, we went back to work. My boss said to carry on as normal. He had not been in the building and had not seen the severity of the two holes. He had, of course, seen the two oak trees leaning against the building. My dad and I went in the Sunday before and tried to take in the shock of the damage. There was water everywhere! The largest hole, which I named Big Bertha, allowed you to see the leaves and the sky through the tree. Outside you could see where the wind had moved and shifted the earth, pushing the trees into the building, at least 20 feet. The smell was rank, as the mold was setting in. Humidity in Florida is insane! All of our AC units were completely out. Fans were set up, the temperatures still reached over 90 most of the days after the storm. To say the conditions were against us, would be putting it mildly. Lack of manpower everywhere made progress slow. What truly is the best strategy for rehousing 60,000 volumes?
Feeling overwhelmed after entering the library, my coworker and I went immediately to my boss’s office after entering the library. We practically dragged him to the library. He was in shock when he saw the severity of the damage. We took notes of everything that needed to be done. As we walked out, I emphasized to him that we had to set up a temporary space as the students were coming into midterms. Thankfully he worked to find us a room. I cannot tell you how difficult and challenging it has been to reduce an entire library, department and building into a very small classroom. We are right on top of each other. I thought I was going to go insane without an office. I had never realized how important it is to just have your own space! A student and I created an office space with bookshelves for me in December 2018.
While such a catastrophic event would be challenging to face in the best of times, I have not had the pleasure of such a precursor. Unfortunately, the library director, left in July 2018, and I am doing his job in addition to mine as he has not been replaced. This past year and a half, has taught me so much about myself and who I am as a manager. Most of what I have learned has been by muddling through and trying to figure it all out without much guidance, except what I have sought out from other professional librarians and my dad who was a manager for 40 years. When I got out of my graduate program, and started this position, I joined the state and national organizations. I began networking through attending meetings and conferences. Thankfully I did so, never knowing that in just a few short months I would be reaching out to these connections because I needed help desperately. One thing I love about our profession is that we genuinely want to help each other, which makes librarianship and archives so much richer for me. For many contacted me to help!
My eight student employees saw the library’s damage and panicked. Were they going to be out of a job? Very shortly after the storm, I calmed their fears and we met in a conference room to plan our transition into the temporary library. What books would we bring? How would we use our space? What equipment would we need? What HAD to go? These and many more were the questions we asked. I learned that you use the assets you have! I could not single handedly go through and figuring out what books we were to bring, as I had a million other things on my plate. This is where I reached out to my professional connections. I desperately posted on all the list serves begging for advice on what to do. I got a phone call from Randy Silverman, who saved my life, as he knew exactly what it was like to deal with Florida’s humidity. I honestly have no idea how he saw my email, but he called as a volunteer with National Heritage Responders. If anything, it was amazing to talk to someone outside the world crumbling around me. I very soon learned that no one was going to help us, at least not out right. We had to be creative on how we asked and as to what equipment we used. We planned to start moving shelves over from the other library into the temporary space that Friday, nine days after the storm. A call was made for flatbed trucks, two students were lifesavers; they moved most of the shelves on one of their trucks. What I soon learned was even if the administration was not always on board, the students were. They wanted/needed a space. That week was INSANE, and I was exhausted! Looking back, I am so thankful for those helpers, because I honestly felt like I was drowning. That following Saturday we ripped out the carpet. The next week, ServPro came, gave an estimate, and told us a plan, which of course I passed along. I am glad for the books we did bring and am still hoping that God in his mercy will not allow too many of the other books to be overly damaged. Yes, there are still books in the other building. A lot of decisions lay in my lap by default. For months after the storm, I kept track of how many weeks and days had passed.
Looking back, I think I handled the situation to the best of my abilities. Do I wish that bureaucracy would move faster, yes? There was only so much I could do without the powers that be deciding how to proceed. Ultimately, I concluded it was up to me to make sure my students were protected by limiting their exposure to our damaged building. Even if only one person you know truly has your back, it makes it possible to accept the responsibility to take ownership of the collection and employees. For the powers that be have not wanted to take the level of mold seriously. I just hope that in the long run they clean the building thoroughly, before moving anyone back in. From this experience, I truly learned the importance of choosing your battles. A lot of my anxiety come largely from lack of direction for me as there is no director and will not be for a good amount of time. While today I am in a place to look back at Hurricane Michael and evaluate the catastrophe it created, the journey to recovery is still in progress.