By Ron Hayes
In the days after Hurricane Irma left air conditioners silent, reading lamps dark and cellphones feeble, refugees from sweltering homes found comfort in secular sanctuaries some had never visited before.
Our public libraries.
They came for books to pass the time, and a light to read them by. They came for the gloriously cooled air, electrical outlets to fortify their phones, Wi-Fi to touch the outside world. And they came for more unusual reasons, too.
“We had one lady come in this morning to blow-dry her hair in the restroom,” Lois Albertson, director of the Highland Beach Public Library, said on the Thursday after the storm.
Not far away, Eugene and Maureen Garrett sat in the sunny reading area, but they were not reading. They were playing yet another round of 500 Rummy.
“My husband’s winning because I’m so tired I’m making mistakes,” Maureen Garrett said, and then she smiled. “But it’s cool here. It’s great.”
The power died in the Garretts’ Bel Lido Isle home about 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 10. Now it’s 3 p.m. Thursday. With the storm approaching the previous Friday night, the couple had abandoned Highland Beach for a Hilton Garden Inn on Congress Avenue and stayed until Sunday, when the power died there, too.
“So we came home,” Mrs. Garrett said. “No sense paying for a hotel room when they don’t have power, either. Now we just ride around all day and stop at restaurants.”
Wednesday they drove down to Coral Springs in search of another hotel with power, but couldn’t find one. Thursday morning they charged their phone at Another Broken Egg Cafe over breakfast, drove around some more, and then had lunch at Renzo’s Cafe in Boca Raton. Now they’ve been playing 500 Rummy — for the past two hours.
“We also brought Scrabble and snacks,” she added, “nuts and raisins. But I’m just exhausted.”
Across from the checkout desk, a large cooler of Nestle’s bottled water waited, courtesy of the Police Department and free for the taking.
Free water was a big attraction at the Boynton Beach City Library, too.
“When we opened on Tuesday, it was like a mad rush to get in and fill up water bottles at our fountain,” said Karen Abramson, the library’s administrative assistant. “Little empty plastic bottles and jugs and a line at the fountain between the men’s and ladies’ rooms. We opened at 9 a.m., and they were waiting outside the door.”
All week long, all the teen and children’s computers were taken, Abramson said, and so were all the charging stations.
“And you should see our DVD collection,” she added. “It’s almost gone. People borrowed everything before the storm.”
Librarians printed out coloring pages, brought out toys for the children and games for the teens, and that morning all the chairs were filled.
“A supervisor from another library came by and used our facilities,” Abramson confided proudly, but wouldn’t name names.
A week after the hurricane, the parking lot of the Delray Beach Public Library became a makeshift dining room as community organizations served hot meals and water to hundreds still recovering from the storm. The event was the culmination of a week in which librarians saw many unfamiliar faces.
“We’ve had people here this week who’ve never been in the library before,” Director Karen Ronald reported. “Some hadn’t spoken to family since the storm. Hopefully they’ll become regular users.”
Upstairs, the library’s 40 computers were almost always in use, said reference librarian Alyson Walzer, usually with people trying to connect with family. And downstairs the circulation desk was bathed in gratitude.
“I’ve had about 50 people thanking us for being open,” said library assistant Jane Weiss. “That makes us feel good, because we’re hot and tired, too.”
Flipping through magazines were Lisha Sutton and her grandmother Mattie Brown, a lifelong resident who was 10 when the infamous 1928 hurricane struck Belle Glade.
“I love it here!” Brown gushed. “I love it! I love it! It’s nice and cool in here. My home is like a heater.”
Not far away, Christina Wood worked on her laptop. A freelance writer and editor, she had brought her work to the library for the past two days.
“I’m working,” she said. “I downloaded about 500 emails today. Most of it’s spam, but still. I’m in and out of here regularly, and I’ll be here every day until my power comes back.”
She shrugged. “Where else am I going to go?”