Disaster Recovery


Hurricane Irene damage in Bethel, VT. Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region on Flickr.

Natural disasters and fires can strike at any time -- sometimes with warning, sometimes without -- and present grave risks to more than historic properties. Protecting human (and pet) lives are always the paramount concern when danger strikes, but both advance planning and taking certain steps in the aftermath can also help your favorite historic places weather disasters as well.

Today's round-up offers three toolkits to get your disaster planning and recovery on the right track.

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern is the National Trust's social media strategist. While she embraces all things online and pixel-centric, she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having fallen for preservation in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class. Follow her on Twitter at @smheffern.



It’s a small word, but a dangerous threat to historic structures. Once a building burns, it’s changed forever, which means the walls, furniture, and unique historic elements lose their original ability to tell their full story. And historic preservation is nothing if not about preserving the stories places tell.... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Emily Potter

Emily Potter is a copywriter at the National Trust. She enjoys writing about places of all kinds, the stories that make them special, and the people who love them enough to save them.

Report from the Field: Sandy's Impact on Ellis Island

Posted on: November 30th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments


Written by Roberta Lane, Senior Field Officer & Attorney, Boston Field Office

The storm surged onto the South Side of Ellis Island, depositing debris and flooding the basements of the historic hospital and administration buildings.

One month after Hurricane Sandy barreled into the East Coast, repair and restoration continues apace at homes, religious structures, downtowns, parks, historic sites, and beyond. In particular, the damage at Ellis Island (one of our National Treasures) provides a snapshot of one kind of post-Sandy reality.

Our National Treasure and America’s 11 Most Endangered Places listings for Ellis Island focused on the 30 vacant buildings on the island to highlight their plight. These buildings have stood the test of time while they wait for a reuse. We were already concerned about their condition, though, so early reports that the stormwaters surged right over the island distressed us.

Indeed, Hurricane Sandy flooded through Ellis Island with a vengeance. Today, the National Park Service is working heroically, in awful conditions, to assess and repair the damage, and we are working with them and Save Ellis Island to try to ensure a brighter future for the south side of the island, a place that has endured so much.

The following slideshow features my photos from a staff trip to the south side of Ellis Island in spring 2012. Consider it a virtual tour, one that might deepen this site's significance for you:

Since the storm, we’ve met with the National Park Service and Save Ellis Island to learn about the current conditions and coordinate our assistance. Of note:

  • One vacant building -- the Ferry Building -- was restored a few years ago by the National Park Service and Save Ellis Island. The storm blew out windows and doors at the Ferry Building and inundated the exhibits and interiors inside.
  • At the vacant US Public Health Service buildings, boarding meant to protect windows was blown out and water got into the lower areas.
  • The grand Main Building had basement flooding, destroying the island’s mechanical systems and most other parts of its infrastructure.
  • The grand Immigration Hall and most exhibits at the Main Building were unaffected.

The National Park Service is finishing its assessments and stabilization of the many units of the National Parks of New York Harbor that were damaged in the storm. We plan to work with our partners to connect preservation professionals from the field with the Park Service’s experts, as needed. And we are building a broad coalition of agencies and organizations to help support the work ahead.

Ellis Island stands for a complex and wonderful American ideal: that we should garner the benefits of major change through immigration, while always ensuring our nation’s fundamental stability and constancy. This concept of well-managed change is also, of course, a value at the heart of historic preservation -- one we hope to demonstrate at this important site.

Post-storm photos are at the National Park Service's Sandy Response Flickr site. Also check out the National Park Service’s fascinating Facebook page, NPS Hurricane Sandy Response. Ellis Island was my first Instagram adventure. Find the National Trust Instagram at @presnation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.


Water damage can be one of the most devastating aspects of a natural disaster, as many in the path of Superstorm Sandy have discovered in recent weeks. And while all structures are vulnerable to flood waters, special care needs to be taken with historic buildings in order to limit the damage to irreplaceable materials and/or design.

In the event that you find yourself in the unfortunate circumstance of dealing with a flooded historic property, here are 10 tips (adapted from our publication Treatment of Flood-Damaged Older and Historic Buildings) to get you started. Additional information can be found in the comprehensive disaster-recovery materials on PreservationNation.org.

1. Document the damage. Before starting your cleanup, take careful notes about damage to your home. This is essential not only for insurance purposes, but also to record important historic features. Photograph any items removed for cleaning or repair purposes to help ensure that they are reinstalled correctly.

2. Create an inventory of found items. Flood waters can carry dislodged architectural features, decorative fragments, and furnishings a great distance. Items found on your property may be extremely valuable to a nearby restoration project.

3. Ventilate! The least damaging drying process begins by using only ventilation. The most effective way to do this is to open windows and doors and allow the moisture to escape. Fans can be used to speed evaporation by moving interior air and exhausting humid air to the outdoors.

Tip: Beware of using industrial drying equipment to remove moisture at a very fast rate. You are likely to cause permanent damage to wood and plaster.

4. Clean the mud while it’s still wet. Rinse mud, dirt, and flood debris with fresh water as soon as possible -- it is safer and easier to remove the mud while it is still wet. Avoid using high pressure water on historic materials and exercise extreme care, so as not to cause further damage.

Tip: Silt and mud will accumulate not only on the floor and furnishings, but in interior wall spaces as well. Be sure to open electrical outlets and mechanical areas and rinse thoroughly, and check heating and air conditioning ducts and clean out any mud or dirt before turning on the units.

5. Beware of a flooded basement. Be careful when pumping water out your basement. If the water level is high, and you are reasonably sure your drains are working, groundwater levels may also be high and pumping water out could result in either more water coming in or a foundation collapse. It is generally advisable to wait for high water to recede on its own.

6. Keep an eye on cracks in the foundation. Movement, particularly widening of cracks, is a sign of structural instability, At this point, call in a qualified structural engineer or architect for a careful examination.

7. Remove saturated insulation. There are two reasons for this: 1) Flooding renders most insulation permanently ineffective. 2) Saturated insulation holds water which, if left in place, can perpetuate high moisture conditions destructive to wood, masonry, and steel.

8. Let the efflorescence take care of itself. The what? Efflorescence is the unsightly white residue found on brick, stone, or concrete walls. It comes from impurities in the materials, but the residue is not usually harmful and frequently disappears naturally when it rains.

Tip: Stubborn efflorescence maybe removed with water, detergent, and bristle brushes -- or with chemicals.

9. Check on your interior materials. Drywall should almost always be replaced. Once it has gotten wet, it becomes unstable, and can be dangerous for residents. (FEMA recommends replacement as contaminants may make the drywall a permanent health hazard.) Plaster, however, is more unpredictable and may survive without damage, while other times it must be replaced.

Tip: One technique for checking plaster is to tap lightly on it with a piece of wood, as damaged plaster will sound hollow.

10. Let wood floors, trim, and doors dry thoroughly before making any decisions. Most wood will expand and warp when wet and then return more or less to its original form as it dries, though it depends on a variety of factors. Waiting for woods to dry can mean the difference between just needing to sand down your historic floors and replacing them.

Have you dealt with flood recovery in your historic home? What proved most helpful to you?

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern is the National Trust's social media strategist. While she embraces all things online and pixel-centric, she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having fallen for preservation in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class. Follow her on Twitter at @smheffern.


Homeowners face some of the most cutting impacts of natural disaster: physical displacement, loss of property, financial uncertainty, and stress. And as Superstorm Sandy just proved, you can never take too many precautions ahead of a natural disaster.

But what if you own a historic property? Are there additional steps you should be taking? And what resources are available to you, the historic property owner, in the disaster’s wake?

Fortunately, there’s a wealth of information out there to help historic property owners minimize the impact to their building as well as strengthen their building’s resistance to extreme wind, rain and other climatic forces. This week’s toolkit compiles the essential steps you can take before and after the storm.

In coming weeks we’ll build on these principles and share specific tips for preparing, planning, and responding to a variety of natural disasters -- including hurricanes, floods, fires, and earthquakes. But for now, let’s start with the basics.

Storm Damage from Hurricane Sandy, Beverley Square West, Brooklyn, NY. Photo courtesy Chris Kreussling (Flatbush Gardener on Flickr)

Before the Storm

1. Create a disaster preparedness plan for your home or property ahead of time. Following a checklist in times of crisis can help focus your attention and keep you from missing important details. Check out this hurricane preparedness example from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.

2. Check your insurance coverage. Older and historic properties often use materials or building techniques you can’t easily replicate today, which makes insurance companies far less likely to cover damage. A great option for insuring historic homes is National Trust Insurance Services (a National Trust subsidiary). NTIS can help value your property and ensure sufficient protection. Visit their website to learn more.

3. Print important information and documents ahead of time. Disasters often cause power outages and service disruptions, so in this wired age of computer and smartphone reliance, it’s helpful to have critical info already at your fingertips.

After the Storm

4. Secure your property. Your two most important tasks immediately following a hurricane are: a) ensure the safety and security of people working on site, and b) keep valuable or important building fabric from the debris heap. Saving architectural fragments, building materials, decorative plaster, etc. can help with restoration later.

5. Call your insurance company and register with FEMA. File a claim with your insurance company as soon as possible. If your area was included in a national disaster declaration, you’ll then want to register and file apply for assistance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Guidance, housing assistance, and more can be found at FEMA’s Disaster Recovery Centers after a national disaster.

Damage from Superstorm Sandy in Arlington, VA. (Photo courtesy Arlington County, via Flickr)

6. Call your state historic preservation office (SHPO) and local preservation commission. Your SHPO can answer questions about your historic property, direct you to the appropriate state and local resources, and help you navigate any confusing processes. If your property is protected as part of a local historic district or locally landmarked, make contact with the local commission early -- before proceeding with demolition or repairs to parts of the property that may be under the commission’s review.

7. Assess the damage. It usually costs less to repair or renovate a disaster-damaged house than to re-build. Before gutting your property (or deciding to demolish), contact your SHPO or statewide preservation organization to find contractors with proven expertise in historic buildings, who can walk through your property with you and help determine the scope of the damage.

8. Make a list. Inventory what was damaged or lost on your property (especially useful in cases of total destruction). Having an inventory will also help with your contractor bids and insurance claims later.

9. Compile repair bids. Figure out exactly what needs to be done, write it down, and walk through your house with contractors to get a ballpark estimate. If it sounds reasonable, request an item by item detailed bid. Try to get three bids based on the exact same work. (And remember to verify the contractor’s state license number and insurance.)

10. Investigate financial resources. Your property might qualify for any number of federal, state, and local funding programs, including grants, loans, and historic tax credits. Your SHPO can help direct you to the programs that best fit your property and its repair needs.

You can find more disaster recovery information on PreservationNation.org. You can also visit DisasterAssistance.gov.

Has your historic property weathered a natural disaster? Tell us about your experiences in the comments.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the director of digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.