Questions Abound After UW-Superior Library Flooded

By BARRY ADAMS | August 27, 2012

Water defines this city.

Having the world’s largest freshwater lake on your shoreline tends to do that.

But in June there was too much water here, especially in the library at UW-Superior.

A storm that dumped about 8 inches of rain on the area in less than 24 hours overwhelmed Faxon Creek and the city’s storm water system. Basements throughout the city flooded, roads, culverts and railroad tracks were washed out and the entire region, including nearby Duluth, Minn., found itself in the middle of a natural disaster.

The Jim Dan Hill Library has reopened but is still recovering. And when the university’s 2,800 students return to classes in a few weeks, they’ll find the bulk of the book collection missing. Only a few Dewey decimal signs, another telling visitors this is a “quiet floor” and the tracks from the movable shelving give a hint that the basement space had been home to thousands of books.

UW-Superior had 16 buildings damaged by the floods and the cost could hit $25 million, the majority of it covered by insurance. But the library and the university’s heating plant took the brunt of the damage, collecting 1.8 million gallons of water.

“Of all the buildings, those were the two with the greatest impact,” Faith Hensrud, the university’s provost, told the Wisconsin State Journal. The other buildings “were much easier remedied than needing to determine what to do about 150,000 books and the periodical collection. It’s a very complicated process.”

About 25 percent of the collection will be available only in digital form, and students will also have the option of requesting a book through the UW System’s universal borrowing program. The library should have more than 20,000 new books on hand shortly after the semester begins. Book titles purchased in the last two to three years and what is considered its core collection are being reordered, Hensrud said.

Repairs to other buildings, including residence halls and a mile worth of steam and data tunnels, are about finished.

“We were very committed to working as hard as we could to get it back into shape so that our campus could function with students, faculty and staff this fall,” Hensrud said. “And we will meet that deadline.”

When the rain came June 19-20, the heating plant, which makes steam to heat campus buildings and create hot water, filled with a stunning 32 feet of water. The steam pipes and data lines that run parallel to one another, and begin at the heating plant, also filled with water and served as an irrigation system that helped flood the basements of 15 other buildings on campus.

Most had anywhere from a few inches to a foot of water, but not the library.

The building, which underwent a $7.7 million renovation in 2009, collected almost 9 feet of water in its basement, home to the bulk of the library’s collection.

An estimated 133,000 titles were damaged, a staggering 44,000 of those titles (there can be multiple books in each title) were damaged beyond repair. Officials are still trying to determine if it’s worth spending $10 to $15 per book to restore the remaining 91,000 titles.

“We’re thinking about what our curriculum is today,” Hensrud said. “We really need to focus on getting those books that support the curriculum rather than just saying we’re going to replace everything we had before.”

Those with the best shot at returning are an estimated 22,000 titles that were on the top shelf of the stacks and were not submerged. Another 91,000 titles have been frozen and remain in a local cold storage facility. This is how a Texas company, BMS CAT, saves water-damaged books. After they are frozen, the books are freeze-dried in a vacuum chamber, which removes the water by converting it to vapor without passing through the liquid stage. Each page of the book is then wiped clean by hand and then the book is treated with gamma radiation to remove bacteria.

A few test boxes of books have gone through the entire restoration process but the results have been mixed, Hensrud said.

Officials are trying to decide if the collection should remain in the basement. An addition above ground level is being talked about.

It took four days to remove the water and longer to go through the books. With temperatures in the 90s, high humidity and no air-conditioning because the building’s electrical system was fried, the smell increased by the day.

BMS CAT arrived with more than 200 people, generators, dehumidifiers and fans. Tents served as staging areas for items removed from the buildings. The parking lots on the small campus appeared to be a huge garage sale minus the price tags.

“They worked 24/7 for three to four weeks,” said Tom Fennessey, director of facilities management. “They put a lot of people to work.”

Construction work is not unusual on the campus. Since 2003, more than $77 million in capital projects have been undertaken. The projects have included rain gardens, one named Water’s Path, outside the student union. The June storm, however, was simply overwhelming.

“The only place for that water to go was to seek the lowest point,” Fennessey said. “It just found its way in.”

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