At 9 a.m. on Oct. 30, the morning after Hurricane Sandy knocked thousands of East End residents off the grid, Dennis Fabiszak, the director of the East Hampton Library, arrived at work to find dozens of people clustered outside, checking e-mail and talking urgently on their cellphones.
“We had 171 people using Wi-Fi that day, even though they couldn’t get in the building,” which was closed, Mr. Fabiszak said, because staff were unable to get there. “We set up chairs in back and ran surge strips outside to make it easier. We had 30 strips, all around the library.”
In stricken communities all over the metropolitan area, libraries became a refuge last week for people seeking warmth, information, and connection. On the South Fork, alone among the four libraries east of Bridgehampton, East Hampton never lost power, Internet, or wireless service, and word got around fast.
Kathryn Reid of East Hampton, whose Internet was out until Monday, heard on Oct. 31, two days afte the storm, that the library had Wi-Fi. “I went over, and it was completely packed,” she said. “I went back on Friday and again yesterday [Monday] for three or four hours. That’s how I got through it.”
“Once we saw the need, we opened early on Wednesday and Thursday, at 7 a.m., and stayed open till around 7 p.m.,” Mr. Fabiszak said. “On Wednesday, we had 1,400 people come in to the library.” Four hundred thirty-nine of them brought their own laptops and used Wi-Fi, he said, while hundreds of others went on the library’s computers, signing up in advance for precious time.
Melissa Jaffe, who works at the library, said some people were a bit on edge that day as they waited to contact family members who’d been unable to reach them, “but the majority were understanding.” All 11 of the library’s adult computers were in constant use, she said, with a long waiting list and a time limit for use of 60 minutes. There were extra power strips in rooms normally used for meetings for those needing to charge their devices.
“We realized what an important role we played,” the library director said. “We got people coffee from Starbucks. We have running water so we filled water bottles.”
As power slowly returned, the sea of humanity receded a little. “On Thursday, the day after Halloween, we had about 1,000,” Mr. Fabiszak said. “Those numbers are staggering for our building and our community. Everyone who came was coming to stay for a while. The staff was great, but the public was also wonderful. A lot of people brought in their extra Halloween candy. The sense of community kept snowballing.”
Clare Scott of East Hampton was at the library on and off during the hurricane week and again on Monday. “It was a great help,” she said. “I really appreciate its being so well staffed and accommodating.”
Cynthia Young, director of the Amagansett Library, found it dark on Oct. 31 and posted signs on the front and side doors of the building telling people that East Hampton had power and was the place to go for wireless. The next day, she said, “The power was on when we came in, but I didn’t turn on the computers. I was afraid of power surges.” With schools out, the library showed children’s movies a lot of the time, but there were “far fewer visitors than usual.”
Amagansett did not get Internet or telephone service back until Monday. “That’s what people were most anxious about,” Ms. Young said.
In Springs, Heather Anderson said, the library was open on Halloween but had no power. By Friday there was power but still no Wi-Fi or Internet. A few supplicants came by that day needing to connect for business or medical reasons and afraid to go to East Hampton because they were running low on gas.
“I let them sit in my office and use my own computer,” Ms. Anderson said. “What are you going to do?” The small Springs Library was open on Monday, all systems go.
Out at the Montauk Library, where power failed when Sandy hit but was restored on Halloween, it was pretty much the same story: heat and electricity, with people coming in to get warm and charge their cellphones, but no Wi-Fi or Internet until later in the week. Very few Montaukers, by all accounts, were among the crowds at the East Hampton Library, however. “Crossing Napeague was not an option for a lot of people,” Karen Rade, the library’s director, said.