A fallen tree sits atop the Epps Annex Library in Lake Charles after Hurricane Laura struck in August 2020. The building has since been demolished. (Calcasieu Parish Police Jury photo)
LAKE CHARLES — A gray trailer sits in the parking lot of the hurricane-battered library in north Lake Charles, Louisiana. Placed on the property in March 2021 through a grant by the American Library Association Disaster Relief Fund, the Epps Express Library offers limited services and has a maximum capacity of five people, including staff.
Branch manager Shone Guillory-Jones says patrons can use the computers, make copies, and send faxes free of charge. If they want to check out books that are unavailable onsite, patrons can place holds and pick them up later. In addition, library staff can use the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center for sponsored activities while they wait for the parish to build a new library.
“People rely on us,” Philip Petersen, a member of Epps staff, said. “We help people with the computer, especially elderly folks that don’t have that much computer literacy. People who need help with VA benefits, food stamps, FEMA relief, or housing assistance come in.”
After Hurricane Laura in August 2020 and then Hurricane Delta on October 7, the Calcasieu Library Board of Control identified the libraries in the parish with the most damage relatively quickly: the library warehouse, Moss Bluff, Epps Memorial and Epps Annex in North Lake Charles, and Fontenot Memorial in Vinton.
The new Vinton Library opened in October 2022. Construction was completed at the Moss Bluff Library by January 2023. Epps Memorial Library Annex was demolished almost three years after the storms, but the main library remains closed.
While Epps Memorial Library is one building of many in Calcasieu Parish affected by the 2020 storms, it is the only one out of 13 regional branches that has yet to reopen as of May 2023. However, parish library director Marjorie Harrison told the Journal that downtown Lake Charles Library’s genealogy/history library would likely reopen in a few months. Epps is in Calcasieu Parish Police Jury District 2, one of four “majority, minority” districts in Lake Charles, north of Interstate 10.
Epps Memorial branch supervisors declined a request by the Southwest Louisiana Journal to photograph the main library’s interior, citing safety concerns. The branch manager, Shone Guillory-Jones, told the Journal that the main Epps branch is currently being used for storage.
In a January 2022 Calcasieu Parish Police Jury meeting, District 2 Police Juror Michael Smith asked for the status of the Epps projects. Parish Director of Facilities Dean Kelly responded that they would demolish the Annex, and the main building “would be demolished and rebuilt. Both projects were in the planning stages as the projects were quite detailed.”
In a Police Jury meeting on April 11, 2022, Smith noted that the parish had many bids for library projects but none for Epps Library. He said that the lack of a library affected the quality of life for north Lake Charles residents.
“You know, a lot of kids depend on that; a lot of adults depend on the internet service, the computer service. We have a trailer there, but the trailer is very small. It houses like two computers and about three rows of books, and I think it’s kind of unacceptable,” Smith said.
During that meeting in 2022, the police jury spoke with Harrison and Kelly. Harrison told the police jury that the trailer was meant to be temporary and that they’d just learned that Epps would likely need to be demolished.
A review of Library Board of Control meeting minutes showed that the Board spoke of the need for the possible demolition of Epps as early as January 2021, over one year before this police jury meeting.
The Board is composed of nine members. Five are nominated by the Lake Charles mayor, Nic Hunter, and the president of the police jury names four. There are two ex-officio members, the police jury president (or their representative) and the mayor.
Smith said he “was very shocked because half of the building is used as a bathroom and storage, and you have about the size of a closet for the rest of the public to get in and do anything.”
District 11 police juror Roger Marcantel expressed frustration at the lack of progress.
“My belief is that’s just totally unacceptable. For 19 months, we didn’t know a building had to be torn down,” Marcantel said.
Mr. Kelly responded, “sadly enough, there’s not a great answer for that. Processes that we have to go through to evaluate these facilities, work with the insurance companies, and then, after that, work through FEMA … to get some of these decisions made and secure funding. It’s a long process, one that I’m not in control of. It’s the process we have to work through to rebuild our community.”
Marcantel questioned what Kelly was waiting on if the parish had insured the library building.
Kelly answered, “You have to protect against an underinsured situation, and what happened here, you know, we’ve had storms that were in excess of the level of construction. If we built a roof to 130 mile-an-hour winds and we had 150 mile-an-hour winds, that’s more of a catastrophic nature.”
Neither Kelly nor Harrison could be reached for comment.
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Although Hurricane Laura made landfall in Cameron Parish with sustained winds of approximately 150 miles per hour, the National Weather Service of Lake Charles recorded a peak wind gust of roughly 130 miles per hour, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). Hurricane Delta’s peak wind gust in Lake Charles was 96 mph and caused further damage to the buildings harmed by the previous storm, ripping tarps off of roofs and hurling Laura’s debris through the air.
Impact assessments provided by Calcasieu Parish Police Jury show that the hurricanes affected nine out of 20 rooms at Epps Memorial Library and 12 out of 16 rooms in the Epps Annex.
Kelly further explained that they had to work with FEMA “hand in hand from day one to try and get through all their checks and balances to make sure when you reach your limit on insurance, FEMA can help out. By doing so, you’re protecting local funding.”
District 15 Juror Tony Tramonte asked for a timeline to indicate when they could replace the small trailer with a larger one. Kelly said he could not “answer the question right off the cuff (because) there’s a process” and would follow up to get that answer. Police Jury President Tony Stelly suggested making a small committee “for y’all to present some type of valuation of what is out there that is left to be done, where the funds are coming from, and an approximate time(line).”
The Calcasieu Parish Library operated with a $15.8 million budget in 2022.
In September 2022, the police jury accepted a $309,900 bid from Alfred Palma LLC to demolish Epps Library Annex. During the meeting, parish administrator Bryan Beam confirmed that insurance money funded the project.
A ‘long process’
The Carnegie Library opened in 1904. Like many other public spaces in the South, libraries were historically places of segregation. When the city of New Orleans opened a library for Black patrons in 1915, the American Press said it was “the first public library in the United States devoted exclusively to the use of the negro race.”
By the early 1930s, approximately 80% of Black people in the South did not have library service at all, according to Steven R. Harris, Dean of Libraries at Northeastern Illinois University, who also noted that after “the return of African American soldiers from World War II and the growth of the postwar economy, expectations of better treatment at home rose.”
In 1945, Calcasieu Parish established a library for Black patrons. Named after George Washington Carver, the Carver branch library was a room on the second floor of Powell Hall, a multipurpose building at 301 North Franklin Street. It was open three days a week for three hours per day. Willie May Goosby was the branch manager. One news article described the building as a “colored recreation center.” Unfortunately, the building no longer stands.
Regarding library segregation, Susan Larsen of the Advocate indicates that “libraries were important battlefields in the civil rights movement, a place where African-Americans fought for equal access to taxpayer-funded public spaces and educational opportunities with read-ins and sit-ins … Louisiana’s bookmobiles were also sometimes segregated, and Louisiana libraries often practiced ‘vertical integration.’ Tables and chairs would be removed so there would be no racial intermingling in seating; patrons would only be able to check out books and leave.”
The Calcasieu Parish Public Library was no exception. Library Board meeting notes from January 1954 indicate that the Board was worried about “friction” that might be associated with allowing Black patrons into white libraries, so they adopted a policy of service to Black patrons “through circulation but not study or reading room service.”
North Lake Charles resident Lois Malvo remembers visiting Epps Library when she was a child.
“That was our library; I’ve gone there all my life,” Malvo told the Southwest Louisiana Journal. “There was no other library for us because we were very well segregated back then. We couldn’t go to other libraries. That was all they had here.”
Segregation of the Calcasieu Parish Public Library system legally ended in 1954 following Brown v. Board of Education. This landmark Supreme Court case proclaimed that the “separate but equal” doctrine was unconstitutional.
By 1958, the Carver Library was located at 121 Enterprise. It again closed, this time in 1975, after the city of Lake Charles purchased the property to build a railroad overpass. A temporary library service was established in the Community for Human Development Center of St. Hubert’s Catholic Church at 1414 Martha Street.
The new library at 1324 Simmons Street opened in February 1976. It was named after Mrs. Rochelle Rigmaiden Epps, a Consolidated Parish Library Board member, and “very instrumental in the construction of the new proposed branch library.” The parish constructed a new building in 1993, and the original library became Epps Annex.
In January 2023, the Board approved the design for a new library. Police Juror Smith declined to be interviewed for this article but told the Southwest Louisiana Journal that he was involved in a few meetings where he reviewed architectural renderings but has not seen any final design. Smith described the status of Epps Library as “frustrating. The plans are all ready to go, but the library director handles all that. They’re the one who makes all the decisions.”
In May, the library announced that Epps Express would temporarily close at the Simmons Street location and reopen at 1200 North Martin Luther King Highway to a 1200 square foot property while the parish demolishes Epps Library to make way for a new construction, which will open in 2024.
Ms. Malvo told the Journal, “What’s the holdup? I know that Mr. Mike Smith, our police juror, has been talking about it for a while. We are at a time in our community where we just have not had any infrastructure in place. It’s not happening fast enough. It’s a shame because many little children used to go there to get their homework done. Why can’t we have what everyone else in the parish has?”
A 2021 cost analysis from Brossett Architect LLC estimates it will cost approximately $1.4 million to rebuild Epps Library.
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