With the recent observance of the anniversary of a devastating tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, I wondered if libraries provide storm shelters. I found both less and more than I expected.
My local newspaper had a story not long ago that the central library in Winston-Salem had a fallout shelter, one of four dozen downtown. Nobody thinks much about fallout shelters any more, but in the 1960s they seemed an important part of public safety.
Public libraries have always been community centers. They have always used their buildings in many ways that have no connection to the most obvious kinds of library services. Of course the library had a fallout shelter. Many others probably did, too.
Tornados give less advance notice than a nuclear strike would. When a tornado warning sounds, people in any building are safer staying there rather than seeking shelter somewhere else.
People out and about in a downtown area might have 10-15 minutes to seek shelter. And of course the best shelter is below ground level.
An Internet search turned up a few pages that mentioned libraries among buildings available for storm shelters. The library in Nevada, Louisiana opens its basement in event of a storm, but its website notes that the basement is not ADA compliant and has no restrooms.
There is, of course, a big difference between a library (or any other public building) making itself available as a shelter and actually having a real shelter. After the library in Pratt City, Alabama was destroyed by a tornado in 2011, it built a new one. The new design includes a storm shelter.
In response to the tornado in Moore, Tulsa, Oklahoma is currently building a new elementary school, and its library will be a FEMA-approved storm shelter, capable of holding the entire school population.
I find that I am not alone in wondering if libraries could serve as storm shelters. An article in the New York times suggested more branch libraries as a means of preparing for emergencies, such as the two major storms and a power outage that have afflicted New York since the September 11 attacks.
The idea came from a study of the deadly 1995 heat wave in Chicago. Some poor neighborhoods fared badly, but others reported few if any deaths. Although the city has been much more diligent about providing cooling centers in the years since, they existed all across town in 1995.
Available cooling centers included police stations, but most people don’t much want to hang around police stations. Neighborhoods where only such undesirable cooling centers existed experienced many deaths. Neighborhood where people could go to the library fared much better. A library is a place where people want to go, anyway.
Speaking of storms, Hurricane Sandy gave librarians a chance to show what they can do in a storm. One librarian, a volunteer at a Red Cross shelter in Medford, New Jersey, grabbed a box of books intended for a library book sale and added some magazines. Once people were able to leave the shelter, one young man told a reporter that the books and magazines helped make the experience fun.
Meanwhile, the Queens Library dispatched a bookmobile to a particularly hard hit part of the borough. It provided information about medical and other help. It checked books out even to people without library cards. It charged peoples’ cell phones. It made computers available. Some of the librarians even conducted story time at relief distribution points.
Whether the buildings are useful as storm shelters or not, count on libraries to provide whatever services they can in time of need.