Weathering the Storm

Brooklyn Public Library shares an episode from their Borrowed series about Superstorm Sandy.

Coney Island Library staff and Brooklyn Public Library administrators stand beside the high water mark outside Coney Island Library on the day of its re-opening in October 2013. (Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Climate change impacts communities in different ways. For us in Brooklyn, Superstorm Sandy and its destruction forced the city to confront our changing climate. Many of our neighborhoods are still dealing with the impact of that storm, and it is one reason why Brooklyn Public Library invested in making our buildings more physically resilient to natural disasters and in decreasing our energy consumption overall. The hope is that our branch libraries will continue to be hubs of support and information in the event of another storm. It was interesting to us, too, to think about the ways that libraries more broadly can serve as social infrastructure in the wake of disaster. The story of community recovery after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico shows us how important it is to invest in public institutions particularly in areas that are vulnerable to natural disasters.

Episode Transcript

Kathleen Fowler We decided to come to the branch because we still had Metrocards here, petty cash was still here. So we came in through the side door… and what a disaster. The force of the water was so strong that it pushed the Snapple machine through the door. The floor was still wet. It was horrible. We couldn’t believe it. It was unbelievable.

Felice Belle If you were living in Brooklyn six years ago, you probably remember Superstorm Sandy.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras The storm started on Sunday October 28, 2012, with the brunt of the hurricane arriving in New York City on Monday morning. Schools were closed, the entire subway system was closed, and several New York City neighborhoods were put under mandatory evacuation.

Felice Belle Much of southern Brooklyn and Queens, lower Manhattan and Staten Island were battered by storm surges. Seventeen percent of New York City flooded during Sandy. Nearly two million people lost power, some for several weeks.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Kathleen Fowler, a librarian at BPL’s Coney Island library, returned to her branch just days after Sandy to find her library destroyed.

Kathleen Fowler Unbelievable. Just that feeling of, wow everything is gone. Everything is gone. No more books down here. All the books were totally damaged. Computers, damaged. Just, where are we going from here?

Felice Belle Where do we go from here? 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Today, we’re talking about how libraries are preparing for climate change, and how neighbors come together in the wake of a natural disaster.

Felice Belle From Brooklyn Public Library, this is Borrowed. I’m Felice Belle.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras. 

Felice Belle In its most basic form, a library is a building. And a building provides shelter from the elements.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras On snow days, libraries can be places to warm up. And on really hot days, libraries are often designated as cooling centers.

Felice Belle We want people to come to our buildings to take refuge from the weather, if they need it. And looking at what happens to a public library during the most severe weather events can help us learn how to better serve our communities. It can tell us how to be useful to a neighborhood during a time of intense need.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras For us in Brooklyn, that means talking about what happened after Superstorm Sandy. It’s our most recent major storm. Sandy is an emotional, devastating subject to talk about for lots of New Yorkers. More than 40 people died in the city, and thousands had their homes or businesses either damaged or completely lost.

Felice Belle Sandy isn’t just part of Brooklyn history. The storm is still impacting Brooklynites today. Emotionally, but also physically. On the day our producer visited Coney Island library to talk to the staff there about the impact of Sandy, the sound of a jack hammer interrupted her recording.

Virginia Marshall And the construction next door right now, that’s not…? 

Kathleen Fowler Oh, my gosh. That’s—they call it “phase two.” It is from Sandy. Today they’re doing the sewerage and then they have to lay another trench, starting he’s not sure when… For something else. But for two years. It’s going to go on for two years.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Coney Island was particularly hard-hit by the storm. There was major flooding and power outages. Out of the six Brooklyn library branches that had to close for repairs after Sandy, Coney Island was the last to re-open, almost exactly a year after the storm. News 12 was there to report on it.

Announcer: “The renovations cost about 2.6 million dollars from city and private funds and from insurance and FEMA money. Residents say that the new library is the final remedy to get rid of painful Sandy memories.

Patron: This was, like, more important than like chicken noodle soup. We’ve been missing this. This community needs this…

Felice Belle For many in Brooklyn, it’s hard to capture the full impact of Sandy. Even after library branches open back up, communities still feel the effects of the storm. Some never moved back to neighborhoods that were badly damaged.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And for those who were used to taking refuge at the library—whether for intellectual pursuits, or to find community, or a warm place to spend an afternoon—suddenly that was gone.

Felice Belle Red Hook, another Brooklyn neighborhood, dealt with similar fallout after the storm.

Nurys Pimentel We always lived in a storm… in a zone. Nothing’s ever happened. And since the majority of the people live—I think like 80 percent of the people live in the projects. So, they’re strong buildings, they’re New York City built buildings. Strong, can withstand anything. Nothing’s ever happened.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Nurys Pimentel is a librarian at Red Hook.

Nurys Pimentel I’ve lived here all my life. This was my library. I went to school down the block at P.S. 15. So I think of Red Hook as a small town library in a big city. Because people that come here, live here. It’s just the bus that comes here. If you’re taking the bus, you live here. It’s not necessarily going through.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Red Hook is in a pretty isolated part of Brooklyn. It’s directly south of Carroll Gardens, but it’s cut off from the rest of the burrough by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and it’s surrounded by water on three sides. In 2012, when Superstorm Sandy was about the make landfall in the Northeast, residents of Red Hook were warned.

Nurys Pimentel We saw the alerts, they’re coming down all week. Okay, this is real, this is hitting us. We have to be careful. Eh, its okay, nothing ever happens here. We live in these strong buildings. That water’s not going to come up, we’re going to be fine. Then, you start getting the knocks on the doors. “You guys have to evacuate. This is serious. This is real, this is going to happen, you guys have to get out.” And, this is all that we know. So of course, stay your ground. And then the lights went off… And then you start realizing how isolated you are. You can’t connect, all the phones are down, the wifi, the internet was down. And I thought about the library. Like, oh my God, what’s going on with the library, the schools, all the stores back here?

Felice Belle After that scary night, Nurys got up the next day and went to check on her library. She found the lights on, and miraculously, the branch still had electricity and heat. The community needed a place to get information, to check in on each other and warm up during the day. That’s what a library usually does for a community. And in those first days after the storm, that’s what it continued to do. 

Nurys Pimentel We didn’t take the time to see, wait a minute, are we supposed to be open? Because we started hearing about things not being safe for us. But still, we came, we opened, full time. Forget the library because we’re not checking anything in or out. We had food, blankets, we had workers from FEMA here, letting people know they can apply for certain things. I felt like these were my people. This is all I’ve known. So when I saw my mom’s older friend, “I’m hungry”… Oh no. We’re gonna—it’s okay. It became a personal connection. I was fine. I was fine. And my coworkers were fine. So we had to make sure everyone else was okay. That’s what we became for about two weeks before they came and told us it’s not safe for us to be here.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So, this is remarkable. The library stayed open for two weeks, not lending books, just being a space for the community. And then they had to close for several months to clean out the mold, to put in new floors, new shelves, new computers. The branch re-opened in March of 2013. 

Felice Belle The impact of a storm like that lingers. For one thing, the physical damage is still present.

Nurys Pimentel We still have generators, there’s still floodlights. There’re still some buildings and some blocks that still don’t have their street lights on the side of the buildings. It’s still dark. We have still not 100 percent have gone back to how we were before that.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras As Nurys walked down Walcott Street and onto Lorraine, pointing out the generators, she passed a young patron she knew on her way to the library. The little girl was wearing a paper hat shaped like a pig and was pouting, clearly upset about something. But Nurys picked her up, gave her a hug, and asked her what was wrong. She told her: “We’re going to have fun today, I promise.”

Felice Belle It’s clear that Nurys is invested in her community. As a librarian and a resident, she knows first-hand the impact of the storm. And it’s not all bad news. The community has changed for the better, too.

Nurys Pimentel What’s changed, though, is the attitude. What’s changed is things like… this can happen, we have to be ready. And I think that after the storm, it was almost like you didn’t want it to define the neighborhood, or define your experience of living here: pre sandy, post sandy. No. It’s a complete reinvention. We’re going to see ourselves different. We’re not limited to being these poor people that got… dunno, their neighborhood got destroyed. Not at all. So many organizations, you see these restaurants. And we got so much more out of people having faith that this community would rebuild itself. We’re not that. Trust us. We’re fine. We’re actually better than we were. And don’t ever count us out.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Unfortunately, big storms like Sandy are only going to get more common as our climate changes. Last year, the National Center for Atmospheric Research published a study in the Journal of Climate that projected hurricanes will become stronger in force, with more rainfall.

Mackenzie Kinard What we’ve seen for the past 50 years is not what we’re going to see for the next 50 years. Our buildings need to be a little bit stronger. More Sandy’s are going to happen.

Felice Belle This is Mackenzie Kinard. She is the Energy Analyst for Brooklyn Public Library. It’s a pretty new position, one that other big library systems are starting to add to their staff too. It’s MacKenzie’s job to make sure the library is keeping up with climate change. 

Mackenzie Kinard So the city is pushing everyone to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. So we’re benchmarking ourselves and keeping track of our energy use, the projects we’re doing to reduce that use, but also building to create more sustainable buildings. So when things like Hurricane Sandy or the more severe weather that we’re expecting actually happens, we have buildings that survive it.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras We want our branches to be the kind of resource that Red Hook was able to be for the neighborhood immediately after Sandy.

Felice Belle With funding from the Governor’s Office for Storm Recovery as well as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the library is making physical improvements to several of our branches.

Mackenzie Kinard In total, five of our libraries are going to be getting solar panels. Four of them are a combination of solar panels and rooftop battery storage.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Those four branches are in flood zones: Kings Highway, Coney Island, Mill Basin and Gerritsen Beach libraries.

Mackenzie Kinard So these batteries will kick in any time there’s an electrical disconnect. So it’s not just when another Sandy happens, its if there’s a blackout it’ll work too.

Felice Belle We’re lucky that in Brooklyn, we have an extensive system of library branches. These buildings are a vital part of their neighborhoods, ready to be of service when they are most needed.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras But that’s not the case everywhere in the United States, right? Thinking about Superstorm Sandy made us think about Hurricane Maria, a more recent, and more devastating storm. Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico in September of 2017 and about 3,000 people lost their lives during the storm and its aftermath.

Felice Belle And, unlike other storms in the United States, hurricane Maria hit a place that was already lacking sound infrastructure and public institutions like libraries.

Frances Negrón-Muntaner The city of San Juan, which is the largest city in Puerto Rico, does not have a public library since the Carnegie library closed years ago.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is Frances.

Frances Negrón-Muntaner My name is Frances Negrón-Muntaner. I’m a professor at Columbia University and one of the leads of Unpayable Debt and Valor y Cambio projects

Felice Belle Three years ago, Frances and her colleagues began to study Puerto Rico’s debt crisis and its impact on Puerto Ricans.

Frances Negrón-Muntaner And as we went along in our research, we realized that one of the hardest hit resources in Puerto Rico had to do with education, information, libraries.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras One third of Puerto Rico’s public schools are on their way to closure, which means that the number of libraries across the country is drastically declining. That creates what Frances called library deserts in many parts of the island.

Frances Negrón-Muntaner In a country where about 50 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, many people don’t have computers at home. So they are relying on the school, the school library or the public library in order to access those resources of computers, information, and books.

Felice Belle The defunding of public institutions like schools and libraries, and city infrastructure—that was all a problem before Hurricane Maria. But the hurricane brought those issues to the forefront.

Frances Negrón-Muntaner So if you look at the whole scenario—destruction of resources as a result of the debt crisis and the hurricane, and resulting weakened infrastructure which curtails the number of libraries that you can access and the materials in the libraries—then you are talking about an emergency.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras After the storm, Frances and two of her colleagues, Angel Lopez and Libertad Guerrea, wrote a proposal for a new library system, which they call Multiteca Libre. 

Frances Negrón-Muntaner We envision this as a place that has multiple functions that is capable of addressing community needs or engaging with them. Everything, not only from storytelling but also to… in case of emergency, perhaps these buildings need to be outfitted so they have solar capabilities, wifi capabilities in case of emergency to communicate out. So we envision this as a 21st century library for the Caribbean in the era of climate change.

Felice Belle But when Frances and her team started fundraising, they encountered a lack of enthusiasm, perhaps because a library seemed antiquated. It was hard to get people excited about it. So, Frances shifted tactics. She wanted to show that people in Puerto Rico want and need community spaces and free access to information.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s when the idea for Valor y Cambio, or Value and Change was born. Frances and Sarabel Santos Negrón, her collaborator, found an old ATM and outfitted it with a video camera and microphone. Then they put the ATM in a public place and invited everyone in the area to come and share stories about what they value.

Frances Negrón-Muntaner And in exchange of that story you would get a bill randomly, which went from one to 25. There were six denominations.

Felice Belle But it wasn’t a standard American bill. These were special pesos, a form of community-supported currency that could be used at over forty local businesses. Community currency is a pretty amazing idea, one that other countries experiencing economic insecurity have used in order to build trust within a community.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Valor y Cambio was an immensely popular project. For the nine days this past February when the project was ongoing, people waited on line for as many as three or four hours to use the ATM.

Felice Belle As they waited on the line, people talked to each other. Some had traveled from other cities and towns to use the machine. For a brief period of time, the ATM became a community gathering point and a place where information and ideas were exchanged.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And Frances and her team discovered something remarkable in the course of the project. 

Frances Negrón-Muntaner The vast majority of people did not use the currency. Of the about 1,700 bills that were circulated, less than 100 were used. It was clear that people valued what the currency represented more than what could be purchased with it. Which I think goes back to the library project. That in many ways, people really need and value community, and this is something that is not new but is certainly underscored by the experience of Maria. If we remember, neither the federal government nor the local government came to assist people immediately after the hurricane and a lot of people only managed to survive because of their neighbors.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s something we learned here in Brooklyn, too, after Sandy. We learned that libraries create community, and that in times of need, like a hurricane or a debt crisis or sometimes both, community can be the thing that saves us. 

Borrowed is produced and written by Virginia Marshall, with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby

Virginia Marshall of Brooklyn Public Library