Libraries in disasters: 2013 tornado in Illinois

Washington, IL Tornado Damage by State Farm used under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0

Washington, IL Tornado Damage by State Farm used under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0

I am an academic librarian who is lucky enough to be living in Sydney, Australia but originally I’m from the United States, specifically central Illinois. Anyone who grew up the US Midwest can recount many tales about living in a part of the country known as ‘tornado alley’. The first Tuesday of every month would bring the familiar ‘whoop-whoop’ of tornado sirens being tested, school children would regularly be ushered out into halls for tornado drills, kneeling in the halls and covering their heads from imaginary flying debris, and anyone from the Midwest is familiar with that anxious stomach knot that comes when the sky turns a particularly eerie shade of green. Those moments stay with you no matter where you are in the world; you can take the girl out of the Midwest but not the Midwest out of the girl. So after living here in Australia for almost 17 years I was stopped in my tracks when I turned on my computer last November to see that a massive tornado had touched down just outside of my hometown very close to where much of my family lives. Phone calls were made, whereabouts were confirmed, sighs of relief and tales of fallen trees and damaged cars were exchanged. Everyone is my family was thankfully unharmed.

In the coming weeks, a truly remarkable story came to light. Precious photos, letters and family papers that had been scattered from the tornado were being collected, catalogued and shared on social media. And what’s more, people who had endured this experience were being reunited with some of their mementos.  And all of this work was being done by volunteers out of the local library.

Since then, this small group of volunteers has grown into a larger project known as The Community POWER (Photos Organized While Encouraging Recovery) Project and to date they have recovered approximately 12,000 items, 5,000 of which have been reunited with their thankful owners.

So when I reflect on the many ways libraries can help during disasters I feel we need to remember that our communities will always need space at times like this. Space to come together, space to help each other and hopefully space to move forward. While we know we can offer so many valuable professional services, sometimes the simplest things are what can help the most.

Amy Barker

ILN Program Coordinator (and proud Midwestern gal)

 

 

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