On January 7, FEMA changed its policy to recognize libraries as essential community organizations, thus making them eligible for temporary relocation funding in times of disaster or emergency. Under section 403 of the Stafford Act, which is the statutory authority from which FEMA derives the majority of its policy, only essential organizations are eligible for temporary relocation funding during major disasters through FEMA’s Public Assistance Program.
One of the major battles waged on behalf of the Cedar Rapids Public Library has been to convince FEMA to recognize the Cedar Rapids Public Library (and libraries in general) as an essential community organization. When tragedy such as a major natural disaster strike, libraries provide the public with access to resources and services they need.
When flood waters devastated the Cedar Rapids Public Library in June of 2008, libraries were not included on the list of essential community organizations. Under the Stafford Act, only fire, police, utilities, schools and essential community services are eligible for temporary relocation funding, when it is related to saving lives and preserving property or public health and safety. While the library worked night and day to renovate their space at Westdale Mall and to get service up and running, others lobbied to FEMA to change the definition of what it considers is essential to a community.
Two senators in particular lobbied on behalf of this change and helped make it happen. Senator Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Senator Jack Reed (Rhode Island) worked on behalf of the Cedar Rapids Public Library and all public libraries to encourage FEMA to consider the change in policy. In December 2009, FEMA reversed its previous decision and agreed that the Cedar Rapids Public Library was an essential community service and would therefore provide funding for the temporary relocation. While this was a precedent-setting change, it was not a policy change.
With the announcement on January 7 that the policy has officially been changed, public libraries across the country can breathe a sigh of relief. No, this doesn’t mean disaster won’t strike, but it does mean that FEMA recognizes the value and necessity of a public library. It means the next library to be unfortunate enough to be in our situation will have one less battle to fight in the recovery process. Libraries will be able to focus their time and energy on their mission of serving the community, which is even more important during times of disaster.
We send our heartfelt thanks to Senator Reed and Senator Harkin, Emily Sheketoff, the executive director of the American Library Association, as well as those individuals at the local, state and federal level who supported this change.