Since the Florence flood of November 4, 1966, the concept of an organized disaster response for cultural property has been a focus for conservators. In 1976, a decade after the Arno River had retreated from Florence's museums, libraries, and historic churches, a Library of Congress planning conference convened to initiate a U.S. national preservation program. At that meeting Stephen Salmon noted a "glaring . . . lack of preparedness for disaster[s] by almost all American libraries."1 Now, forty years since that calamitous flood, little has changed in terms of being able to initiate a nationally coordinated plan in the face of calamitous events that threaten cultural property in all collecting institutions. In fact, it is now clearly recognized that only one in five cultural institutions has created an emergency response plan that encompasses collections,2 and it is likely that some or all of these plans will prove ineffectual in the case of a regional disaster. Furthermore, according to meteorologists at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, we now face in the next twenty to thirty years the possibility of stronger, more damaging storms capable of threatening our cultural institutions.3
Ample evidence is at hand that a national disaster response protocol is urgently needed if we are to ensure that irreplaceable cultural collections are not needlessly lost. This protocol must be able to be activated quickly to deliver appropriate assistance to affected institutions and, accordingly, be unencumbered by day-to-day bureaucracies that historically have delayed response time and increased collection damage. This essay describes two recent large institutional catastrophes as well as the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina, an unprecedented U.S. regional disaster, in an effort to underscore the importance of creating a nonprofit entity—the National Disaster Center for Cultural Property (NDC)—capable of implementing an effective response in situations where local resources and expertise are overwhelmed and cultural property is at risk. [End Page 497]
Two Institutional Disasters
On Friday, June 8, 2001, floodwaters from Tropical Storm Allison filled the lower level of the University of Houston's O'Quinn Law Library. The water rose to a height of eight feet, submerging the collection for about two days. Counted among the damage, according to Librarian Jon Schultz, were approximately 200,000 books, 1.2 million microfiche, "one of the finest Mexican law collections in the country," the "absolutely superb" John Brown Admiralty collection, paper copies of the Records and Briefs of the Texas Supreme Court, and the John R. Brown Archive (John R. Brown was the chief judge for the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court from 1967 until 1979, historically significant as the principal legal architect of desegregation throughout the South).4 Damage to the O'Quinn Law Library's collection was estimated at $28.5 million, independent of damage to the building itself.
From the outset Schultz considered most of the law library's collection unrecoverable. In a short video shot on-site two days following the flooding, Schultz documented floating books and furniture in the main stairwell leading to the library's ground floor collection storage area and sadly commented, "What can we get out? What can we save? Probably very little, if anything."5 A consultant was retained to direct the law library's recovery effort.6 The library's ground and first floors were separated using 6-milliliter black plastic sheeting (Visqween), and the environment in the upper part of the building was stabilized with two 60-ton portable air conditioners to reduce the risk of mold germinating in the dry part of the collection. Standing water was pumped out, and the library's unique archival material was salvaged and vacuum freeze-dried,7 but the majority of the submerged collection—175,000 books and 1.2 million microfiche—was summarily discarded in the ten days following the flooding. Schultz's film captured "the Law Library [collection] leaving one bucket at a time," as front-end loaders, their steel buckets laden with drenched books, transferred the collection to industrial-sized garbage dumpsters that were unceremoniously transported to a Houston landfill.8
Two years after the tribulation caused by Tropical Storm Allison...