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Evacuation of the University of Iowa Main Library

Friday, June 13, 2008
At 6AM, I sent the following email to Nancy Baker and others: “After seeing the Czech/Slovak Library/Museum under water almost to the roof top and many roof tops and church steeples and watching flood level forecasts, I’m thinking we should revise our scenario of about 1 foot of water in Main to 5 feet. Last night before I left, I talked to Greg, he feels that emptying the next shelf up will go quickly and most if not all will fit into the same room. I’m thinking we should go up 3 shelves instead of 2. Maybe this sounds radical but officials are now starting to say they don’t know if all the dams, etc. will hold. We can discuss the storage book collection. We need to get some of those out, too. I’m starting to think I’d rather pack out dry rather than wet books.” We packed our bags, planning to stay overnight, and left around 6:15 so we could be at work around 8AM. It was very eerie as there was hardly any traffic on the road; we arrived around 7AM.

We had a very brief meeting around 8 AM. We agreed that Paul Soderdahl would direct evacuation of computer equipment, I would direct my staff evacuation of their work area, Sid and Greg would direct move of Special Collections, circulation staff would coordinate volunteer sign up and I would coordinate removal of collections out of the basement. We agreed on the proposed 5 foot mark.

One of my staff was in tears as she was concerned that her house would be flooded. We agreed that after all equipment and materials were out of the preservation department, staff could go assist her in sandbagging her house.

At the time we decided to remove materials up to the 5 foot mark, we were being denied sandbags. Of course, once we had most materials out, the sandbags arrived after all. On Thursday we were told we had two days to evacuate — Friday and Saturday. Knowing that dams might break, we assumed one day. We were told sometime on Friday that a dam or levee of some sort did break and that we could not come back on Saturday. Actually we were told to stay home for a week.  We had hundreds of volunteers. Our evacuation was phenomenal. I’ve never seen anything like it. We have 3 elevators and 2 stairwells to the basement. Our collection storage is crazy making, unfinished floor, compact shelves, and narrow aisles. We used carts and elevators, human book handing chains in the stairwells, box brigades. I told everyone that I hoped my worst fears were just that and that all this evacuation was just a practice exercise.  We had a hard time keeping up with our volunteers. We’d identify a section for packing out, point them to it and like locust they’d swoop in and empty the shelves out. H Pedelty did an incredible job of keeping everything coordinated in the circulating collection storage area. When we were short of carts, we packed items in boxes. We had 3 and 4 human chains going at a time, sometimes belly to belly. A couple volunteers suggested that they could organize the evacuation better than we could and get stuff out faster. I’m sure they could have. But we were mindful that we would need to put everything back in place and were trying to keep some semblance of order as items were stacked on tables on 2nd floor.

Meanwhile the Library IT staff moved the servers out of the Main Library with the goal of having them operational by evening. They sent out a reminder that in the interim all the Libraries’ electronic resources would be unavailable. We had until noon to save everything to the H or L drive so we could have access to our files from another location while we are evacuated.

At 2:11 PM we received the following email notice: “With the closure of University classes and programs, University faculty and staff are not to report to work effective immediately, unless involved in providing patient care, utilities, security, facilities or other essential services.  …  Faculty and staff not needed to meet emergency needs should stay away from the campus to assure their safety.  Individuals whose work place is closed or unavailable will continue to receive their normal earnings for the immediate period (June 13-22).  Additional information will be provided to address any period beyond June 22.  During this period of time, those who can perform work at home should do so, or consider volunteering their service to the community to meet emergency needs.  Please watch for public announcements as to when University faculty and staff will be asked to return to the workplace.” Course none of us had access to our computers to get this announcement!

At one point we were told we needed to be out by 5PM. Then they heard that the Governor and other dignitaries would be visiting the campus, including the library. Suddenly we were given until 9PM for our evacuation efforts. Par for the course, the Governor and his entourage arrived during a break. No one was working. Everyone was taking a well deserved food and water break. We’d had problems acquiring food and water. The UI Libraries credit card could not be used for food and water. Ed and Paul finally ended up using their personal funds to buy food and drink for our volunteers.

We very effectively used our elevators and stairwells and successfully evacuated all staff (150), over 100 computers, all Special Collections material up to 4-5 feet from the floor, a majority of theses, plus dewey, art, and music books up to 4 feet from the floor and our 16 mm film out of the basement. Priorities were set in storage based on collective knowledge of what might be the least likely to be replaced balanced against how to make the best use of our volunteer labor without running into each other. It was incredible.  We worked until 8:30PM. We had several offers for places to stay overnight. We were a little concerned that if we didn’t get home, it might be a while before we could get home. Almost all roads are under water and closed. It took us over 3 hours to get home as we had to go over an hour west (Grinnell) before we could head back to Cedar Rapids. We got home around midnight.