Two back-to-back disasters in 1989 served as a wake-up call to American cultural stewards: Hurricane Hugo struck the Southeast in September, and the Loma Prieta earthquake shook Northern California in October. Then came the Midwest floods in 1993, followed by the Northridge, Calif., earthquake in 1994. Cultural stewards at archives, museums, libraries, and historic sites realized that they were not prepared to respond to emergencies in their own institutions, nor were they prepared to come to the aid of their neighbors.
In late 1994, more than 80 representatives of regional and national organizations came together with federal representatives to discuss how to help cultural institutions better protect collections and speed recovery from disasters. Sponsored by FEMA, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property, the National Summit on Emergency Response was a call to action.
The gathering was notable for two reasons. First, it presented a good opportunity for the library, archives, museum, and historic preservation communities to join forces around a single issue. Second, it marked a major public commitment by FEMA to preserving cultural heritage. In his keynote address, FEMA Administrator James Lee Witt challenged the audience to commit to “a national effort to reduce the future impact of natural disasters on our cultural and historic institutions across this nation.” (Jane Long, “When Disaster Strikes: A National Response.” The Getty Conservation Institute Newsletter 10.1, Spring 1995.)
The major recommendation of the summit was suggested by Richard Krimm, FEMA Associate Director for Response and Recovery, who proposed the establishment of a national partnership of cultural and historic preservation leaders and federal officials to coordinate for the first time a national approach to disaster response for cultural heritage. Acting on this recommendation, the summit sponsors convened the first meeting of the National Task Force on Emergency Response in March1995.
Initially, the Task Force was a partnership of 29 federal agencies, national service organizations, and private institutions. In 2002, a new name – the Heritage Emergency National Task Force – was chosen to reflect a broader interest in all facets of the emergency management cycle. Co-sponsored by Heritage Preservation and FEMA, the Task Force grew to 42 members. Now co-sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and FEMA, membership in the Task Force continues to grow and strengthen.
Heritage Preservation, on behalf of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force, developed a range of emergency programs, publications, and resources that shaped the U.S. landscape of cultural heritage emergency preparedness and response. When Heritage Preservation was dissolved in 2015, Heritage Preservation’s emergency programs and resources were transferred to the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation (FAIC), a private nonprofit sharing a similar mission to protect cultural heritage. Links to FAIC are provided for the programs and resources below.
Tools and Publications
The Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel, first published in 1997, provides quick access to information on protecting and salvaging collections. The Wheel has become the single most recognized and respected tool for protecting books, documents, art, and artifacts from water damage. The original slide-chart Wheel has been translated into nine languages and distributed in more than 40 countries.
The Wheel is now available as the mobile app ERS: Emergency Response and Salvage. Developed in partnership with the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, the app can be downloaded free of charge on Apple, Android, and BlackBerry devices.
The Field Guide to Emergency Response, first published in 2006 and updated in 2017, is a compact handbook designed for immediate use when disaster strikes. Simple, clear instructions help staff organize essential disaster response functions and tackle common threats to collections. The award-winning Field Guide includes handy checklists, and demonstrations of salvage techniques are available on YouTube.
The poster Working with Emergency Responders: Tips for Cultural Institutions tells how to find and build relationships with local emergency responders, as well as what responders need to know to better protect cultural institutions.
The Guide to Navigating Federal Emergency Management Agency and Small Business Administration Disaster Aid for Cultural Institutions, first published in 2008, was created specifically to help cultural institutions, arts organizations, and historic sites and properties obtain federal funding to recover from major disasters. The handbook, reviewed and approved by both FEMA and SBA, includes a summary of federal recovery funding regulations tailored specifically for cultural heritage organizations, relevant FEMA, SBA, and Internal Revenue Service policies and procedures, and directs users to required federal forms online. An update is currently underway.
Cataclysm and Challenge presents findings from a survey, conducted in the months immediately following September 11, 2001, of 122 museums, libraries, archives, and other collecting institutions in Lower Manhattan. The only comprehensive overview of the damage to and loss of cultural property that resulted from the events of that day, this report illustrates how individual institutions coped with the aftermath of the disaster and offers specific recommendations concerning emergency planning for collecting institutions.
Preparing to Preserve resources guide historic preservation and emergency management organizations in the integration of historic preservation concerns into emergency management systems, primarily at the state and local level. These resources include an emergency planning checklist, a 1-2-3 guide to building relationships with emergency managers, and an action plan to integrate historic preservation into tribal, state, and local emergency management plans. By working together, emergency management and preservation professionals can protect the built environment, expedite recovery efforts, and ensure that historic landmarks survive disasters.
MayDay is a national effort to set aside May 1 to “do one thing” to prepare for disasters. Archives, libraries, museums, and arts and historic preservation organizations across the nation participate in an event originally introduced by the Society of American Archivists and now promoted widely by all sectors of the cultural community.
Launched in 2003, Alliance for Response is a series of one-day forums designed to link key cultural heritage and emergency response representatives, leading to new partnerships and local preparedness activities. The concept of establishing a relationship at the local level paralleled the national approach first proposed at the 1994 summit to facilitate a more effective and coordinated response to all kinds of emergencies.
While Alliance for Response has been instrumental in protecting cultural and historic resources at the local level, the State Heritage Emergency Partnership initiative, undertaken by Heritage Preservation in support of the Task Force, fostered a preparedness dialogue among state cultural agencies and their respective state emergency management agencies in 22 states. The SHEP Framework enables other states to apply the lessons learned and to adopt and adapt applicable preparedness activities.
The Risk Evaluation and Planning Program (REPP) standardizes the risk evaluation process for cultural institutions, motivating cultural stewards to undertake practical mitigation steps and develop new relationships with local first responders and emergency managers. REPP, piloted in 2008–2009 by Heritage Preservation, encourages pairing emergency responders with preservation professionals to conduct risk assessments at libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions. REPP tools include a site questionnaire, a risk prioritization worksheet, and a facilities walk-through checklist.
Getting Ready in Indian Country is an invitation to consider emergency preparedness specifically for Native American interests. Developed with support from the National Park Service and the Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance of the Department of the Interior, this 2010 initiative examined emergency preparedness in Indian Country in a comprehensive report, stimulates discussion, and inspires new projects for the care and protection of tribal heritage.
In October 2006, the Heritage Emergency National Task Force launched a Lessons Applied: Katrina and Cultural Heritage initiative designed to help Task Force members develop and implement projects to address the major issues that Hurricane Katrina and other major storms brought to light. The goal was to convert analysis to action. Many of the resources noted addressed five issue areas:
Now under the leadership of FEMA and the Smithsonian Institution, HENTF continues its work in these areas to further develop tools and train staff at libraries, archives, museums, historic sites, and historic preservation and arts organizations in disaster preparedness, response, mitigation, and recovery.