The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 19, Number 6
Nov 1992

Disaster Conference Report

Disaster Prevention, Response, and Recovery: Principles & procedures for protecting & preserving historic/cultural properties and collections. October 2425, 1992. A conference sponsored by Technology & Conservation and the MIT Museum.

Reported by Nelly Balloffet, Paper Star Associates, Inc., and Ana B. Hofmann, José Orraca Studio

The goal of this symposium, organized by Susan A. Schur of Technology and Conservation and Robert Hauser of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, was to provide a broad overview of the fundamentals of safeguarding collections from floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural and human-induced emergencies and hazards. People from many disciplines presented a great variety of information in two very long days. Speakers included a large number of experts in the fields of conservation, architecture, engineering, insurance and safety. Vendors provided information about products and services currently available.

The conference speakers, in order of appearance, were:

A striking feature of this conference was that members of different disciplines seemed very comfortable in exchanging information during breaks. There seemed to be a lot less of the suspicion that we have often noticed at conservation conferences, toward anyone not a member of the conservation field. Perhaps people felt that they were on "neutral ground" and were free to speak their minds. We will summarize the talks given by some of the presenters.

Peter Waters began the conference by talking about the major library disasters with which he has been involved, from Florence to Leningrad, and wistfully wished that people might remember him for more cheerful accomplishments.

Many speakers stressed that proper housing of artifacts or books, good building maintenance and a comprehensive disaster plan are the key to minimizing damage in a disaster. Several presentations covered the effects of Hurricane Hugo. It was pointed out that while everyone had several hours to prepare for the hurricane, the institutions that weathered the storm best were those that had stockpiled the necessary supplies, such as plywood, as part of earlier planning.

Throughout the conference, the importance of writing a disaster plan was stressed repeatedly. One amusing and informative account was given by David Lee Colglazier, Conservator at Old Sturbridge Village. He pointed out the difficulties and challenges of developing a plan in an institution where many people are involved in the decision-making process.

Karen Motylewski moderated a panel of conservators who presented various case histories. Barry Bauman's presentation dealt with the 1986 flood at the Chicago Historical Society and the emergency efforts that led to saving the painting collection. Sally Buchanan's presentation followed and included several useful tips, among them, the fact that if mud is washed off wet books before they dry, embedded dirt will often rise to the surface during drying and can then be brushed off.

Dr. Richard Smith described experimental drying and fumigating techniques that were used to cope with conditions after the fire in the Leningrad Academy of Sciences. Because of the magnitude of the disaster, many unusual methods were employed in an effort to prevent more extensive loss.

A technical and extremely clear presentation was given by Kathy Francis in which she described methods of cleaning soot and water-damaged textiles, and emphasized the importance of controlled drying in the immediate post-disaster period.

Some of the presenters have been experimenting and doing research on various methods of disaster prevention and/or recovery. Klaus Hendriks described lab tests of different recovery methods for photographs. The conclusion was that it is preferable to air-dry, rather than freeze-dry, water-soaked photographs. He recommended that certain types of photographs be protected from ever getting wet, since recovery is difficult or impossible.

Richard Peacock described analytical models for predicting fire and structural behavior in earthquakes. These computer simulations can be used in the design process to minimize the hazard to people and property in a disaster.

David Look, Hugh C. Miller and Bert Cohn spoke on the problems of restoration and retrofitting of historic buildings. Mr. Cohn refreshed our memories about the first building code known, a part of the Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1750 BC): "If the building collapses and kills its owner, the builder shall be put to death." He noted that modern codes are less clear-cut.

A representative from the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] gave an overview of what the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program can do for an institution after an incident. The purpose of this program is to provide 50/50 matching funds to states, and through them, to local communities, for immediate and long-term hazard mitigation measures following a major disaster declaration. FEMA has issued many useful publications.

The insurance field was represented by a loss control specialist and a senior inland marine specialist. They discussed setting up a risk management program for an institution and the role that the insurance company should play at the disaster planning stage. They can help identify hazards and suggest both remedies and ways to lower the cost of coverage. It is unusual to have insurance representatives at disaster conferences, and many participants took the opportunity to ask specific questions.

Industry representatives provided information on products and technology currently available. Daniel Moore of DuPont discussed new fire extinguishing agents that have been considered as replacements for Halon, scheduled to be phased out of production by the end of 1993. A likely choice is the FE13 formulation, since it combines good performance, low toxicity and low cost. It contains no chlorine or bromine and does not pose a threat to the ozone layer. The gas has a high vapor pressure and could be used in existing CO2 systems.

James Kilgallen explained the various kinds of fire alarm systems available today and the best applications for each. The fire detection industry has made good use of the microprocessor-based technology now available, and has increased system reliability and flexibility. There are many different systems available which can be tailored to each institution's needs and resources.

Various types of sprinkler systems were described by Kenneth Eisman. Modern systems used in cultural institutions are of the dry-pipe type. This means that water does not flow through the system's pipes until a sprinkler head is activated. The installations can be very unobtrusive. The overall benefits of having sprinklers are generally accepted, but some members of the audience worried about potential damage from accidental discharge or leaks in the plumbing.

Don Hartsell described applications for cryogenic pelletized dry ice, a soft scour, in the restoration and cleaning of historic buildings. The dry ice completely evaporates at the point of contact, leaving no residue. The method can also be used for cleaning large metal objects, mechanical equipment, and HVAC systems.

Ron Chamberlain stressed the importance of including vendors in disaster planning, much as the representatives from the insurance industry had done earlier. He pointed out that many vendors have extensive experience with disasters and have resources that should be included in a recovery program.

Technology and Conservation will publish excerpts from the conference and serialize the extensive bibliography in future issues.

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