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.
It is generally said that the flooding left the library with 1.5 million books underwater. More specifically, though, it is more accurate to recount that in the Howard-Tilton building alone about 750,000 of the library’s print volumes and recordings were submerged, as were nearly 1.5 million individual pieces of microform such as microfilm reels and microfiche cards. Microforms in this case represented facsimile collections of rare works of scholarly interest and important documents. In Jones Hall another 700,000 or so original manuscript folders and other archival items were flooded too.
In those initial days after Katrina, both 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 hot 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.
Some initial attempts to drain the water from the library basements were unsuccessful, as water from the still saturated ground outside would seep back in. But within about four weeks of the storm, water from the lower levels of each building was eventually removed.
In the smaller basement of Jones Hall a successful effort was made to retrieve everything of value, more than 4,000 boxes of material overall. These were archival collections comprised largely of historical manuscripts but also other primary source archival materials for research that included registration cards, newspapers, books, posters, matted prints and other art work, cartoons, photographs, lithographs, ledgers, diaries, journals, scrapbooks, and miscellaneous ephemera.
Once drained, the much larger basement spaces of the main 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 Howard-Tilton basement held more than 43,000 titles including books, scores, journals, CDs, LPs, and more. In general, the salvage operation overall 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 the printed books and scores in the music library 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 20 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.
While the upper floors in both library buildings, and the collections on them, were saved from mold, each structure, especially the main Howard-Tilton building, sustained severe lasting physical damages.
Overall, more than 300,000 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 useable condition. After the restoration process they were among the materials to be reintegrated into the library’s collections through a monumental effort called the Tulane Libraries Recovery Center, which was organized to handle more than 1 million restored items, donations, and initial replacement purchases. The Recovery Center represents a library recovery of historic scale..
Both the Howard-Tilton building and Jones Hall were miraculously open for that first, vital post-Katrina spring 2006 semester.
But ten years later temperature and humidity control in the main Howard-Tilton building was still being provided by an 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.
Today work has finally been completed on a large-scale building remediation project, planning for which began soon after the library established the processes through it would steadily restore and rebuilt its collections.
The Howard-Tilton building finally has a functioning, permanent HVAC system with automated instead of simple manual controls.
In summary, much was lost but remarkable work was done in this. While there were major losses, the rapid response and salvage effort after the storm 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 Katrina. (See more photos.)Howard-Tilton Memorial Library Build-Back and Hazard Mitigation Project
To rebuild the physical spaces destroyed as a result of Katrina's flooding, Tulane University developed a Hazard Mitigation and Build-Back Program with funding assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The program led to the construction of two additional floors on top of the existing Howard-Tilton Memorial Library building. This addition, completed in early spring 2016, houses elements of the library that were formerly located in its basement, as well as elements from the flooded lower special collections stacks level of Jones Hall. The new floors provided replacement of lost library spaces as well as the replacement and relocation of the building’s primary mechanical and electrical systems, which were also destroyed.
The hazard mitigation component of the program was addressed by rebuilding the flooded spaces at a high elevation. The build-back component is addressed by reconstructing the same spaces for similar uses, adjusted in scale only to accommodate modern building codes and regulations. Discussions with FEMA about the project began in 2007 and a design phase with construction plans was finally approved in 2012. The construction began in the fall of 2013 and included special requirement that allowed the library to remain in operation throughout. A library construction blog described the construction process in detail.