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The U.S. will soon get its first real threat of the fall hurricane season with Tropical Storm Karen ramping up in the Gulf of Mexico. And with that comes an intriguing suggestion of how to prevent another stormy disaster — build more libraries.

That's the suggestion of a New York Times commentary piece today that explains why the typical safety protocols of hunkering down in your own home with emergency supplies after a storm is actually bad for public health. The Times' architecture critic Michael Kimmelman explains that after Hurricane Sandy, powerless and hungry people went to local country clubs or community centers much more than official, city-sanctioned areas. People prefer to congregate in buildings with a social focus, like libraries.

Particularly for the poor, the safety and community of local branch libraries is of major importance. "The branches have become our de facto community centers, serving the widest range of citizens — indispensable in countless, especially poorer, more vulnerable neighborhoods," Kimmelman writes. With open rooms, air conditioning and/or heating, libraries easily function as mini-shelters in the post-storm malaise.

tropical storm karen librariesThe question is particularly relevant right now, as Tropical Storm Karen barrels toward the upper Gulf Coast. With the Northeast shore still recovering from the destructive wake of Hurricane Sandy, this season was supposed to bring even more frequent and larger storms, scientists predicted. That hasn't come to pass, with just two hurricanes thus far and 11 non-threatening (to the U.S., at least) tropical storms. But Karen is expected to bring 60 miles-per-hour winds and 3-6 inches of rain when it makes landfall on the upper Gulf Coast on Saturday night, Accuweather predicts.

It's not just libraries that will prevent a potential Karen-caused disaster, of course, as schools, churches, and malls play that public gathering role as well. But with libraries facing cutbacks, it's a good reminder that they work as a center of knowledge and of social life, too.

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