Where would you go for disaster relief? No, I am not talking about the economy; I am referring to events that would evacuate citizens to designated shelters, such as hospitals or schools. A New York Times article this morning points to better choices: libraries. The suggestion was made when Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University, guided architects around Red Hook, hit by Hurricane Sandy. He is the research director for the Rebuild by Design competition organized by HUD to be better prepared for the next big storm.

One problem has been that people don’t like being herded into unfamiliar and disaster-related places, so they don’t go. Red Hook shines as an example of innovation from the grass roots; an art gallery, real estate office, night club and youth center attracted and energized people during Sandy. It is necessary, however, to have a plan to utilize spaces everyone knows and where everybody feels at home. A branch library is a place already serving the neighborhood as an information center. Libraries can be built with protected electrical systems, back-up generators, and kitchens. They are activity hubs and have wireless environments.

“Even schools are not quite like branch libraries. The branches have become our de facto community centers, serving the widest range of citizens — indispensable in countless, especially poorer, more vulnerable neighborhoods. They are much threatened by budget cuts, but never more in demand by toddlers and teenagers, working parents, the elderly and the unemployed, new immigrants and traditional readers” (Michael Kimmelman, “Next Time, Libraries Cab Be Our Shelter From the Storm,” Critic’s Notebook, The New York Times, October 3, 2013).

A second article in this morning’s Times lends another thought to the discussion of how libraries can save lives.  The Trust of Helen Gurley Brown, renowned editor and feminist, is giving $15 million to the New York Public Library for a new educational and anti-poverty program based at library branches in New York City. BridgeUP will help 250 eighth graders each year with homework and “Passion Projects.” Brown came to New York from Arkansas and used the public library as her “oasis” because, “It was the only place where she could feel safe and free to write and think.”

Many other famous contributors to American life have made that claim, and it seems obvious that cities and counties should recognize the significance and increase funding to libraries for sheltering people in disastrous times, whether they are caused by environmental, economic or domestic storms.

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