San Antonio supports Hurricane Katrina relief efforts

by Kimberly Chapman

The editors of NMRT Footnotes requested submissions about how Hurricane Katrina has affected libraries. While many libraries directly impacted by Hurricane Katrina are still recovering, I’d like to talk a little bit about how the San Antonio community dealt with relief efforts for hurricane evacuees.  Since you’re on your way to San Antonio for ALA Midwinter, I thought I would tell you a little bit about the warmth and generosity of this city and the state of Texas.

Let me start by telling you a couple of things about me:

  1. Although my name is Kimberly, the keychain I’ve been using since the beginning of summer has the name Katrina on it.  Does this have anything to do with the hurricane?  Absolutely not – it is just a coincidence.  The name Katrina has some family significance, which is why I have the keychain.
  2. I'm not from Texas.  I went to graduate school at The University of Texas at Austin, and while I currently live in San Antonio and work at The University of Texas at San Antonio, I am always quick to point out to people that I’m really from Wisconsin, a dairy gal at heart, and that I’ve lived in lots of different places. Complete strangers tell me that I don’t sound like a Texan.  Well, no kidding, I’m from the Midwest.

(You might wonder why I’m telling you this, don’t worry, there will be a point…..)

Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast region in late August, devastating communities in both Louisiana and Mississippi with both the initial impact and flooding due to storm surges.  The plight of the thousands left stranded and homeless, the frustration and anger with FEMA and other relief efforts, and the shock of catastrophe are all well-documented in newspapers and newsmagazines.  Relief shelters were set up in Louisiana and Mississippi and many other states, including Texas.  In fact, Texas took in thousands of hurricane evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, and while Texas was coping with the enormity of the Katrina Relief effort, another hurricane slammed into the Texas Gulf Coast, sending Texans further inland while Hurricane Rita downed power lines and caused damage in coastal cities like Beaumont and Port Arthur.

Texas took in over 230,000 evacuees in the first weeks of the crisis, concentrated in the Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas/Fort Worth/Arlington areas, as well as other cities across the state.  In Houston, the Astrodome was temporary home to thousands of evacuees.  Here in San Antonio, temporary shelters were created at several locations, including KellyUSA (a former military installation) and a closed Levi Strauss plant.  In fact, the KellyUSA shelter is still home to people displaced by the hurricane.  During the weeks immediately following the hurricanes, the San Antonio Express-News and local news channels were full of stories about the hurricane evacuees, hurricane volunteers, and community support.  People all across San Antonio donated food, clothing, and money to the shelters, and many pitched in and volunteered at the shelters and churches, assisting with relief efforts.  The outpouring of compassion and support was as overwhelming as the enormity of the disaster itself.  

Although the semester had already started, The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) reopened enrollment and admitted over fifty students who had been displaced by the hurricane so that they could continue with their studies – students who could not return to Loyola, Tulane, the University of New Orleans, and other New Orleans area universities due to the damage in Louisiana.  UTSA extended privileges to displaced faculty and university staff were given release time for participating in volunteer efforts. UTSA’s support and welcome of hurricane evacuees was representative of the entire city’s attitude; for example, the San Antonio Public Library set up computer workstations specifically for hurricane evacuees. 

It is not possible for me to describe all the relief efforts, and I wouldn’t want to try – I’m not a journalist, and I’m not writing a term paper, either.  Sometimes, it is the little things that really hit home, and that’s what I can tell you about.

A couple of days after Katrina hit, I got a phone call at the Reference Desk. A man asked me if we had computers for the public to use, because he and his family were staying at the Comfort Inn (across the highway from UTSA’s main campus).  They had evacuated from Hurricane Katrina and were lucky, because they were able to find and afford a motel room; they just wanted access to a computer so they could check their email to contact friends and family and keep track of the news about what was going on in New Orleans.  I started to explain our computer use policy (which discourages email) but told him that because of the circumstances, the policy was flexible and we would assist however we could.  I don’t know if he came into the library or not, but I like to think he did and I hope that somehow, our facility provided a way for him to get the information he needed.  I ran into a displaced Tulane student on campus the other day, who told me he was going to be here next semester too and was trying to find the appropriate office to submit his special paperwork.  Even though we weren’t in the library, I thought the very least I could do was escort him to that office.  I guess I looked like a helpful person or maybe I seemed like everyone else in the city of San Antonio and the state of Texas who have welcomed evacuees these last several weeks – ready to help in any way possible.  

I introduced this piece by mentioning two things: that I have a keychain with the name Katrina on it and that I’m quick to point out I’m not from Texas.  To be honest, I thought about putting away my Katrina keychain, but I think I’ll keep it for awhile, to remind me how lucky I really am to be living in the great state of Texas, which is home to so many caring and generous people and is the new home of many hurricane evacuees.  If you see me at the conference and ask me if I’m a Texan...I might just answer, “Yes, I am.”

Have a great conference, y’all!