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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, November 2, 2004

Librarians rush to salvage flood-damaged items

 •  Photo Gallery - Halloween Eve Flood
 •  Cloning, medical research hit hard by flooding at UH
 •  Manoa, UH assess flash flood's damage
 •  Students in library fled floodwaters
 •  Homeowners insurance limited
 •  Halloween eve flood damage to UH facilities 'unbelievable'

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

Lynn Davis stood in a muddy field with a garden hose and gently washed down a 200-year-old map of the Sandwich Islands.

UH library technician Verna Young hangs up aerial photos to dry in Hamilton Library, which was flooded Saturday.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Mabel Suzuki carefully rinsed off rare aerial photographs of remote Micronesian islands and hung them to dry on a piece of string, using hastily purchased clothespins from Costco.

Rebecca Knuth looked over the place where her office walls had been and mourned the loss of a lifetime of personal books and papers.

All through the University of Hawai'i's Hamilton Library, and all over the Manoa campus yesterday, students, staff and faculty members scrambled to salvage precious and priceless documents swept away or damaged in the Halloween Eve flood.

"It's a scene of complete devastation," interim UH President David McClain said. "It's going to take a long time to recover."

Volunteers worked doggedly to salvage some of the 90,000 maps and tens of thousands of archival photographs that were drenched when a river of muddy water roared through the basement of Hamilton Library, tearing out walls, ripping down bookcases and ruining card catalogs and computer servers.

The basement housed the university's map collection, government documents room, collections services staff, and the School of Library and Information Sciences. The flood also knocked out a computer room that allows online searching of the library's collections.

"The entire computer room is history," said Jean Ehrhorn, associate university librarian at Hamilton.

No damage estimates were available yesterday, but structural damage was extensive.

More irreplaceable were the one-of-a-kind collections, like the first known aerial photographs of Micronesia or dozens of rare maps dating to the 1700s.

"This has been a major depository for decades," Ehrhorn said. "We're optimistic that a lot can be saved, but time is a big factor."

While students rinsed and air-dried the most important of the documents one by one in rooms still without power, staff members fanned out across campus, carrying black plastic garbage bags, to locate documents that had been swept away. They found items as far away as Dole Street and the lower campus athletic fields.

"At first you're in shock, but then you just kick in and start saving things," said Davis, the head of the library's preservation department.

Conservationists had only 48 hours to rescue the most valuable items in the collection. After that, damaging mold begins to grow on the paper, Davis said.

Within hours of hearing of the flood Saturday night, librarians began planning the first "triage" effort, Ehrhorn said. The first volunteers started showing up at 7 a.m. Sunday. Conservation specialists from the Bishop Museum, the state archives, 'Iolani Palace and elsewhere arrived to lend an expert hand.

By yesterday afternoon, thousands of the rarest pictures had been washed and hung to dry. Most of the priority maps, still lying flat in their bathtub-sized metal drawers, were rinsed and being transferred to refrigerated containers. Dozens of muddy computers were lined up on a sidewalk, waiting to be scrubbed and, hopefully, have their hard drives saved.

Still, thousands of documents were lined up in muddy boxes, waiting for action. Those would be frozen first, then thawed and cleaned as time allowed.

"I may be working on this for the rest of my career," Davis said.

The water ripped out nearly every wall in the basement and destroyed the private work of nearly every professor.

Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.