By Jane Long

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In recent years the United States has endured disasters of unprecedented scope and severity. During the first 11 months of 1994 alone, 41 states experienced disasters serious enough to warrant presidential declarations. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and wildfires inflicted billions of dollars in damage on communities. Cultural institutions and historic structures suffered as well.

Until now the conservation and preservation communities' attempts to help in these crises have been almost entirely ad hoc. Efforts are often duplicated and limited resources strained. A survey of 30 national cultural organizations conducted last year by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) and the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property (NIC) found that all groups believed they had done "too little, too late."

Now things are changing. Under the leadership of the GCI, the NIC, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the components of a national emergency infrastructure are being developed so that future emergencies, wherever they occur, can ultimately be met with a focused response.

On December 1, 1994, the GCI, the NIC, and FEMA convened a meeting in Washington, D.C., of more than 80 representatives of national cultural and historical service organizations and federal agencies. Their overriding goal was to ensure that in future disasters, cultural institutions better anticipate problems and quickly find the help necessary to speed recovery. Called the "National Summit on Emergency Response: Safeguarding Our Cultural Heritage," the meeting provided a rare opportunity for cultural leaders and government officials to join forces. Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, called it an "unprecedented gathering, long overdue."

Speakers sounded several basic themes: the significance of cultural heritage in American life, the need for a cohesive response to disasters, and the value to the public of preservation and conservation services during emergencies. Throughout the day speakers and panelists—representing the breadth of the cultural community—pledged to work with FEMA and one another. GCI Director Miguel Angel Corzo urged the adoption of a unified, interdisciplinary strategy: "For too long we have been reinventing the wheel each time a disaster strikes. We need a national partnership to create an emergency infrastructure that can provide help in a coordinated way."

In his keynote address, FEMA Director James Lee Witt challenged his audience to "commit your organizations to a national effort to reduce the future impact of natural disasters on our cultural and historic institutions. . . . FEMA is committed to working with you to develop such a program." To the delight of participants, he sealed FEMA's commitment by proposing a series of public service announcements (PSAs) offering useful information on salvage and recovery measures.

Public service announcements were among several initiatives generated by the summit. The GCI prepared an edited video of the proceedings as an advocacy tool. During the January flooding in California, the NIC and the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) disseminated through the Internet Ten Tips for Homeowners, advising on the care of family heirlooms damaged by floodwaters. FEMA then published the guidelines in a press release and later produced them as their first "cultural heritage" PSA on both its radio network and disaster assistance hotline. With the help of AIC and other groups, the NIC assembled and mailed a flood response packet to cultural institutions and agencies in 34 California counties.

The major recommendation coming out of the conference—and the one that can have the most far-reaching consequences—was suggested by Richard Krimm, FEMA Associate Director for Response and Recovery, who proposed establishing a national committee of cultural and historic preservation leaders and federal officials. Acting on this recommendation, the GCI, the NIC, and FEMA convened in March the National Task Force on Emergency Response. With 25 members, the task force embodies the wide range of federal agencies and private organizations represented at the summit. Its objective is to coordinate for the first time a national approach to disaster response for cultural heritage.

At its first quarterly meeting in March, the task force selected three basic areas as priorities: information and training, on-site assistance, and funding for recovery. Major initiatives include the development of a fast, efficient system to disseminate information on response and salvage measures to cultural institutions; a computer mapping project that includes the National Register of Historic Places and other cultural heritage sites; and the training and organization of conservation "SWAT teams."

Other projects FEMA has proposed to the task force include: creating a cultural heritage component for the training FEMA regularly conducts for disaster assistance professionals; adding conservation and preservation experts to FEMA's damage assessment teams; developing a more comprehensive policy for FEMA on the conservation and treatment of art and artifacts damaged in disasters; publishing articles by conservation and preservation experts in Recovery Times, a bilingual newsletter distributed by FEMA following disasters; and establishing a model state-federal agreement regarding response and recovery for historic buildings.

For the Getty Conservation Institute—which along with the NIC is providing staff and administrative support to launch the task force, as well as facilitating communication among its members—the work of the task force represents an important advance in its efforts to help cultural institutions cope with disasters. Since its inception in the mid-1980s, the Institute has been engaged in disaster preparedness and response, including researching mitigation measures and organizing emergency response activities in the United States and abroad. As GCI Director Corzo declared at the Washington summit, the time had arrived for action on the national level: "After nearly a decade of involvement, we have come together with FEMA and other agencies to put cultural heritage on the national disaster response agenda."

Jane Long, a consultant based in Washington, D.C., served as the coordinator for the National Summit on Emergency Response and directs staff work for the National Task Force on Emergency Response.

Members of the National Task Force on Emergency Response

Advisory Council on Historic Preservation

American Association for State and Local History

American Association of Museums

American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works

American Institute of Architects

American Library Association

Association for Preservation Technology

Association of Regional Conservation Centers

Cooperative Preservation Programs Group

Department of the Army

Federal Emergency Management Agency

The Getty Conservation Institute

Library of Congress

National Archives and Records Administration

National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers

National Emergency Management Association

National Endowment for the Humanities

National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property

National Park Service

National Science Foundation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

Small Business Administration

Smithsonian Institution

Society for Historical Archaeology

Society of American Archivists