La dame -- Camille
Madel Jacobs Morgan
Two days after Hurricane Camille had vented her incredible fury along the ninety-mile stretch of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Library Commisson sent a team to the area to assess the damage to public libraries and see what could be done to help. John Nunelee, associate director of the Commission, led the group. He was accompanied by Peggy May, coordinator of consultant services, and Bettye Broome, field consultant for South Mississippi. After surveying (for two days) as many libraries as could be reached and obtaining reports on others, they returned to Jackson with word that manpower was the crucial need just then. Money and material could come later. At this point help was needed to clear away debris; to rake out mud, sand, and broken glass; to decide what could be salvaged and what should be counted as a loss.
Beginning at the east border of the state and moving westward, they learned that all units of the Jackson County Library System came through the storm unscathed. In fact, employees of the Pascagoula Library were sleeping there at night as utilities services to their homes had been disrupted.
The Harrison County libraries did not fare so well. At Biloxi, although the main library was untouched, water had entered the Division Street Center Branch, soaking books on the lower shelves. Two staff members lost their homes.
Items in the library and manuscript collection at Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home at Mississippi City, were water soaked and covered with mud and slime.
The new Gulfport-Harrison County Library on Highway 90 received the full impact of wind and water which created havoc on the lower floor and did extensive damage upstairs. Library furnishings and materials were scattered over several blocks. Plate glass downstairs and upstairs was shattered. Salt water, persistent enemy of metal, had flooded the underfloor conduits, ruining the elaborate wiring system concealed there.
Two blocks off the beach highway, Maria Person, director of the library, received a foot of water in her home. Her automobile was totally ruined. Five staff members lost their homes.
Still moving westward on Highway 90, the team found that the Long Beach Library, which is located on Jeff Davis Boulevard off the Highway, received little damage. Staff members had taken refuge in the building during the storm. On into Hancock County, they found a small miracle at Waveland. With almost total destruction in this little community, the old Mississippi Library Commission bookmobile (1952 vintage), converted into a temporary branch library, had weathered the storm admirably. There were a few scratches on the exterior, but very little harm within, although water did seep in through the floor to soak a few books.
At Bay St. Louis the roof was blown off the City-County Library, but in most of the building the tile ceiling which was left intact served to keep out the rain that followed the storm. In the rare books room and the children’s room where a few tiles had fallen, there was some damage to books which were not on the shelves. The MLC crew found the owner of the building and helped him cover bookshelves and make the building as water tight as possible until a new roof could be completed. The library’s bookmobile had been taken to a local car agency for storage during the storm and it was unharmed. Inside the garage where it was stored, the custodian had taken refuge in the bookmobile during the height of the storm.
Turning inland from Bay St. Louis and entering Pearl River County, the Library Commission team found that the Margaret Reed Crosby Memorial Library at Picayune had suffered extensive damage. The roof was gone; three-fourths of the books and most of the equipment and furnishings were water soaked. The beautiful carpets were a total loss, with the possible exception of the Savonnerie in their memorial room which was being taken to the Manheim galleries in New Orleans for restoration.
As a member of the first working crew to go to the coast following the survey team’s report, I was appalled at the extent of the destruction there. Since the Gulfport-Harrison County Library was the hardest hit, we concentrated our efforts there; although we did first spend half a day at the Jefferson Davis Library at Beauvoir washing mud, slime, and mold from their book collection. The sight of Mary Lee Nelson, bibliographer from the Library Commission, dipping books into a large garbage can filled with treated water to give them a careful scrubbing is unforgettable.
Driving past mile after mile of utter devastation on the way to the Gulfport-Harrison County Library, we passed one structure which had lost all its front walls. In the chaotic mess of the interior, surrounded by broken furniture, loose-hanging sheetrock, and piles of heaven knows what, sat a young man in a rocking chair, placidly reading a book. We commented on that mute testimony to the power of the printed word. When we drove past again late in the afternoon, he still sat there rocking, absorbed in his book.
The mud, slime, and mold we had encountered at Beauvoir was mild compared to what we found at Gulfport. The beautiful new library there had been gutted.
Having known Maria Person since college days, I had stopped in several times during vacations on the Gulf Coast to visit her old library--a busy, pleasant, crowded place located in downtown Gulfport. I remembered my last visit with her in the old library when there were books lined up on the floor at the bottom of the fiction stacks. Maria had grinned, saying that there was no space for more stacks and this was her way of letting her patrons (and board) know just how badly they needed a new building. She got the new building.
Built with local funds, it was the showplace library of Mississippi. They chose for it a fabulous setting on Highway 90 overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. It was built with two floors almost completely framed in glass, a gracefully curving stairway connecting them. There were lush areas of carpet, an elaborate wiring system for air conditioning, heating, and lighting, wood shelving by Sjostrom, attractive furnishings. Now, on seeing it, all I could think of was--well, here she is right back where she started--books all over the floor.
The structure itself withstood the wind and waves, barring a few dents from flying objects. Shattered glass lay everywhere; books and furnishings which had been retrieved from blocks around were piled about helter-skelter. Some drawers were hanging out of the card catalog, others were scattered about on the tops of shelves and outside on the steps. There was an inch or more of muddy sand on the floor.
Possibly thirty people were in the building when we arrived. A volunteer group of airmen from Keesler field had come with brooms and shovels to clear out sand and debris. Several teenagers had come in to help. Some of the library staff members were cleaning books; the bookmobile librarian was going over her stocks (notwithstanding the fact that the bookmobile was out of commission, its engine ruined by salt water); the bookkeeper was matter-of-factly checking invoices. Maria moved about from group to group consulting, advising, directing, and holding up remarkably well, I thought, in view of the circumstances. The insurance company had just replaced her ruined automobile with a brand new one which undoubtedly flagged her spirits. She had arranged to sell unsalvagable books to a paper firm and piles of these were growing outside as staff members sorted and discarded.
The Corps of Engineers who were surveying all public buildings had rated the library as structurally sound, and steps were being taken to have repairs made as soon as possible. Maria consulted from time to time with the building contractor who was pacing about taking notes for his estimate.
We asked Maria about the wires which were hanging from the ceiling--the entire overhead was a jumbled mass of sodden and broken ceiling tiles and dangling cables. She told us they were not dangerous as the current was off.
She asked us to see what we thought about the biographies. Her idea was to salvage only those books which could not be replaced. Everything on counter-height shelving in the main reading room had been under water. Now these books were dripping wet and growing a fine crop of mold. We began pulling them from the shelves, cutting away the sodden book jackets, blotting out the water, wiping off sand and mud, spraying them with a mold inhibitor and setting them in an airy place to dry out. It soon became apparent that little could be done to save them.
A staff member came from upstairs to ask for help in the county law library which was housed in the upper southeast corner. There also the plate glass was shattered. Water had washed over much of the carpet and along shelves exposed to the plate glass. Even those books on shelves away from the glass had absorbed moisture. As a result the books had swollen, forcing outward the ends of the bookshelves. Enlarged and already molding, the ponderous volumes were so tightly wedged into the sections they almost seemed to be grown together. Removing them was hazardous due to the splinters of glass which were everywhere. Here, too, sand was over the floor, along with glass, ceiling tiles, books, shelves, and broken furniture. This collection had not received the prolonged soaking that the downstairs books had; but even so, many of them which had been washed or blown off the shelves were unsalvagable.
We had started work at 8 am. By noon, the airmen had cleared nearly all the floors of debris and had begun nailing plywood where the glass had been. Since it will undoubtedly be days or even weeks before the glass can be replaced and the power restored for lights and air conditioning, we wondered how work could be continued with no lights, no air conditioning, and no pleasant Gulf breeze.
As of now (one month later) the book collection has been inventoried revealing that bookwise the Gulfport-Harrison County Library is in sad condition. From the 940’s up, nothing is left. There are only a few biographies, no language dictionaries (with the exception of Webster’s unabridged which somehow escaped), very few (about twenty-five each) left in the 300’s and 500’s. The 600’s and 800’s are over half gone. Fiction, shelved on the second floor, was spared. Religion, philosophy, and the 700’s are in good shape (a note attached to the inventory—”Maybe the public will need such now!”). Expensive reference books were hard-hit.
Nothing that was swirled and battered by the force of the water that swept through the first floor will ever be really the same, including the card catalog, vertical files, furnishings, and much of the shelving.
President Nixon and Vice-President Agnew have both visited the Gulf Coast and promises of federal aid for rebuilding have been made. The public libraries on the Gulf Coast are confident that their needs will be taken into account in plans for rebuilding.
It is not known yet, however, just what effect the decreased tax revenues will have on the functioning of these coastal area libraries. The Mississippi Research and Development Center has estimated that income from taxes will fall drastically this year and that it will be some years before revenues again reach the level of the first eight months of 1969.
The library building and service program of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast has suffered a heartbreaking setback. It is the hope of all those concerned for their future that ways will be found to fund them adequately in the years ahead.
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The Adult Services Division and Reference Services Division have forwarded surplus books from their “notable” lists to the Mississippi State Library for distribution to damaged collections. Ed.