Disaster Preparedness and Response for Historic Cemeteries
Thank you for joining us today. This is the second day of our webinars on disaster preparedness. Thank you for those who are returning from yesterday and welcome to those that are coming for the first time. Luckily, most of you know who NCPTT is, having gone to our web site and found out about these webinars. Sarah Jackson gave a good introduction yesterday. If you didn’t catch it, you can go back and view that. For those of who didn’t, I’ll sort of go over very briefly a little bit about NCPTT.
My name is Jason Church, I’m a Materials Conservator and today we’re going to talk about Disaster Preparedness and Response for Historic Cemeteries. Now, “historic cemeteries” is an important phrase in there. I’m not going to talk much about active cemeteries or new ones — we’re not going to talk about burial or burial loss or reburying after a flood, that sort of thing. We’ll go over it briefly, but mostly we’ll look at issues at historic cemeteries.
So, welcome again. We’re coming today from Lee H. Nelson Hall from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, usually abbreviated NCPTT, and here we are a research and training office of the National Park Service. Now, for years I’ve said to people we’re not your average Park Service. We look at cultural materials, and we don’t look at bald eagles and fuzzy bears. I’ve said that for years, and I’ve decided to change that thought, because, in fact, we do look at eagles and bears, but just in a different way.
So what we do here at NCPTT is look at cultural materials, how they decay, what we can do to stop that or slow that decay, what we can do to conserve these. We look at a lot of architectural pieces, outdoor sculpture, things like that, I do personally, and that’s what we’ll be talking about more today. So NCPTT’s mission is to advance the application of science and technology to the field of historic preservation. In doing that we have four main divisions here at NCPTT. We have Architecture & Engineering, Archaeology & Collections, Materials Conservation, and Historic Landscapes.
So we’ll move on and talk a little bit now about disaster preparedness for historic cemeteries. So the first thing we want to talk about is before the storm. This is really important. This is, in my opinion, the most important, to have this stuff ready before you actually need it. It’s a lot better to be proactive than it is reactive. We can get a lot more done being proactive. We can get a lot of things accomplished that we might not have thought about. So first we’re going to talk about what to do before the storm, and we will get to what to do after the storm. I said before, you want to be proactive. We want to expect the worst.
We’re going to talk a little bit about documentation, emergency plan for the office and staff, staff training, and also contacts that you need to make, again, before the storm. That’s not something we think much about, but we’re going to go over that a little bit. So the first thing we’re going to talk about is documentation and why is this important.
What do we mean by “documentation” in our historic cemeteries? The first thing that we want is an account of the current condition. What do you have? What is the state that it’s in? And this can be something as elaborate as a full inventory. I teach a lot of classes on documentation, and there’s links on the NCPTT web site to webinars we’ve done on documentation and more information about that. But there’s a lot of things that we can gain from having an account of the current condition.
For example, we’re going to talk a lot about disasters, and people think about natural disasters, but I’m also going to talk more about man-made disasters. I just read an article this week — I believe it came out of the State of Ohio — where they caught a young man who had a very large collection, I think 80 some pieces, of funerary objects in his driveway. He was arrested. Urns, angels, vases, you know, benches, all these things. And I noticed in the article the cemeteries in the area we’re talking about sort of scrambling to see what they might have lost, looking around to see what they find missing, and a lot of that is going to be institutional memory because they don’t any documentation of what they currently have.
Another thing in documentation we want to look at is the record of existing issues. If you have what we call a widow maker, which is large sections of trees that are rotten or hit by lightning or windstorm and have fallen out but are still sort of hanging in the balance, you’ll see large sections of limbs or trees sort of still hanging up in the canopy. If you know you have these, these are the sort of things that after a big windstorm you need to get back out check again, sort of problem areas that you find when you record existing issues. Maybe in doing documentation and recording existing issues you might make note of things like, oh, we know this area over here is prone to flooding. That’s something that we need to look at more often. We need to check back with after flooding or after a heavy rainstorm.
Another thing that helps us do is it helps us to establish preservation and stabilization priorities. For example, if you look at this photograph, we have a lower and an upper. In the lower photograph we have, unfortunately, this really nice Victorian mausoleum that has already significantly deteriorated. All of our crenellation, all of our cut stones laying on the ground. It’s probably not going to go much further right now than it already is. We’ve already lost a lot of the pieces that are going to come off. This definitely should be a priority. We need to bring in a preservation crew. We need to point that roof line before we start having issues. But we don’t have active movement. This is something that’s sort of in a stabilized state of decay. Whereas the upper photograph that we have, this is a very active issue. This is something we have these large slate panels, they’re sliding, they’re moving away. In that we have a lot of water coming in. Our roof is now compromised. We can see the cemetery this is in is doing a good job, they’re being proactive, they’re trying to stabilize this, they’ve got the caution tape up, they’re warning people that this mausoleum is actively moving. They’ve got their blue tarp trying to keep water out. But one of the big issues that we need to think about is if you have something like this, if you have a heavy windstorm, you have really heavy rains, tornado, hurricane, this is something you need to go back out and check. This is something that needs to be on the priority list that. Hey, we need to go find out is that tarp still in place. Did our mausoleum fill up with water? If it did, can we relieve some of that pressure, internal pressure, by maybe opening a door, that sort of thing? Because if you look back at the photograph, we have an active shifting facade. We have four-by-fours sort of supporting that. So this is something that needs to be checked on, and we would know through documentation that this is a preservation and stabilization priority.
So records management and protection. There is a wide range of cemeteries out there, cemetery issues, and what you might have varies very differently from what the next person might have. Some cemeteries, there probably is no records house, there’s probably no records at all. Maybe the local library has a few things. But for the most part, records aren’t part of your daily worries. Some cemeteries have very active records, active burials, maybe 100, 200 years’ worth of burial records, maintenance reports, sales records, lots of paperwork involved. What do we do about this? There’s a really wide gambit. We can do anything from digitizing our whole collection, to scanning it, to just trying to protect what we already have. And I’ve seen most every issue in this dealt with. If you have the money, digitizing your records is great. We’ll talk a little bit more about digital records in a second. Most sites don’t have that in their budget. That’s not a priority for them. Financially they’re trying to keep the gates open, they’re trying to keep the place maintained, issues like we saw in the last slide dealt with. So digitizing the records probably might not be in the budget.
So one thing I’ve seen is fire-proof and water-proof storage cabinets, large file cabinets that are fire rated, things like that. These are things that you need to think about. For example, one cemetery I’ve worked with, they had in their protocol for disaster — they were in a hurricane-prone area. If they knew it was hurricane season, there was an imminent hurricane coming, what they would do is pack up all of their records, seal the file cabinets. Then the file cabinets got transported to a trailer that was already stored on site, ready. This went to a vehicle. The vehicle then took it to another city six or eight hours inland who already knew about this, the plan was already worked out, and it goes into an internal storage facility once it gets to that municipal government office eight hours inland. So they had sort of thought about this. They were very proactive. Hey, a hurricane is coming. Certain employees knew, Okay, this is my job. They’ve called me into action. I’m going to go up, get the file cabinets, load the trailer and drive to a protected site.
So there’s all kinds of things we can do to protect paper records if you’re in an area that’s prone to flooding, prone to hurricanes, tornadoes, that sort of thing. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of notice with tornadoes, but definitely for hurricanes. Another thing that we can think of, we talked about digitizing your records. This is really great. A lot of people are doing this. A lot of people are putting their records online, things like that. But one thing we have to think about is, it’s very important to also back up these records, for lots of reasons. One, just as records deteriorate digitally, it’s really important to have backups and copies, but also for disasters. If you have a tornado come through, a flood come through, I’ve talked to lots of groups who have said, Oh, no, it’s great, we digitized everything, we have them backed up on a server, and backed up on this hard drive. And you go in and this is what’s left of the records house. This is what the offices look like. And you say to them, Okay, that’s great, you backed it up on a hard drive. Where is that hard drive? And they say, We don’t know. We don’t even know where the office is at anymore.
Here at NCPTT when we did a lot of work with Katrina, we talked to groups, talked to one cemetery that had all their records digitized. They had a back-up copy on site. And then the cemetery’s caretaker also had a back-up copy at his house. Unfortunately, his house was only about five miles away. Both were gone. So that’s one thing you need to think about. A locally backed up copy may not be as useful as you might have thought.
For example, here we’re in a hurricane/tornado-prone area. All of our files, all of our servers are backed up to California. So there’s a lot of services out there on the Internet you can find and things like that where you can back up records off site at an area farther away from you. So that’s something you may want to consider for your records management. Also one thing that we look at is there are lots of plans out here. Dplan is a really great one. Dr. Striegel talked about DPlan earlier. If you didn’t catch that, go back and watch that webinar.
Dplan is an online disaster planning tool for cultural and civic institutions, and this is a free service you can go on. It’s really comprehensive. You can go through and it will ask you all kind of things like: Who gets called first? Where is the water cut-off located? Where is the gas cut-off located? What do you do with your records? And not only does this give you a good organizational chart, it also makes you think about a lot of things that you might not have thought about before in your office space or at your institutional space. So I recommend going to dplan.org and checking that out and sort of learning that from.
Another thing that we can talk about is staff training. So we’re going to come up with all these things. We’re going to think about our records. We’re going to think about pre-storm checklists and all that. Those things only work well if everyone knows about it and everyone is ready for it. So definite staff training, in-house training needs to be a high priority when we’re talking about preparing for a disaster response. These are things we want to do well in advance before the disaster hits, before it’s season for the disaster, before you ever have any problems. You want to know that your staff is going to know what to do when it happens.
We will talk more about specific disasters and things like that. But one of the things that we also talked about is pre-storm checklists. So, for example, here we talk about hurricane season a lot, tornado season. It’s knowing what needs to be done when it’s that time of year. If you’re in an area of the mountains and you have mudslides in the rainy season, or when it’s the thaw season after winter, these are things that you want to know that you have. So do you have tools available? What tools are going to be needed? Maybe it’s chainsaws for clearing out tree fall. Maybe it’s chainsaws for clearing the roadways to get into the cemetery originally to start doing some more of the work. Do you have those supplies on hand? Are your chainsaws ready to go? Do you have gas for them? Do you have oil for them?
I know from personal experience, about two weeks before Katrina hit, and about six months after, in the state of Louisiana you couldn’t buy a gas can, period. You couldn’t get them in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas. They just didn’t exist. So it’s making sure you have those things on hand and ready. Are they gassed up? Has maintenance protocol been followed? Is everything ready to go? And not only that, does everyone there have the training for it? Do you have people that have the proper training to use that chainsaw or did you assign one of your employees to come in and cut who has never ran a chainsaw, who hasn’t had the proper training on it? So all these are things that need to be thought about before the actual need for them.
Another thing as far as our checklist is cemetery infrastructure. This is really important. This is something a lot of people don’t think about, that sort of gets overlooked, but in cemetery infrastructure, we want to know that you know how to turn the water mains off. What if you have trees that come out and they rip the water mains with it? Who knows how to turn those off? Is there a map available? Is everyone on site trained for that? Maybe you have gas lines that run into your cemetery. I’ve been to several cemeteries that have really beautiful lamps lit at night, things like that. If you have trees that come down, they pull the gas lines up, does anyone know how to turn those off? Do they know where the main turn-offs for those are?
If we look back at our photograph, what we have here is a storm drain. This storm drain, believe it or not, is a full functional one. There’s about six inches of debris built up in front of it. This is not what we would want to see in the event of a disaster. If it’s the time of year that you get heavy rains, that you get hurricanes, someone needs to go around and check these. That needs to be one of the checklists that someone goes around and physically inspects all the storm drains. It’s amazing how much a couple pieces of wood that have fallen, a good buildup of debris, is going to greatly minimize the usefulness of this storm drain.
I know, for example, I was with the City of Savannah, Department of Cemeteries. They do a great job of this. Everyone has a very specific checklist. About a month before hurricane season, everyone gets issued their checklist and, you know, Okay, I’m going to go and initial this map, all of these storm drains. That’s my job. Someone else has storm drains in the next few blocks. And then everyone initials, they inspect all of them, not only in the cemeteries, not only the culverts in the cemeteries and the storm drains, but actually the entire citywide they look at before hurricane and before the rainy season starts, and then we can take note, and we can go and make those a priority to fix those.
So not only storm drains but also culverts, water cut-offs, gas cut-offs, all important infrastructure issues. Is there a main power to the cemetery? Do you have light posts down? Do you know how to turn the power off if they’re damaged? That sort of thing. And also run drills, simulations. Maybe once a year issue everyone these checklists. Make sure you know how to do it. Run a drill where everyone has to go in — I can remember working at a cemetery, we ran a drill where one of my responsibilities was to put the boards made for the caretaker’s house over the windows before hurricane season. In doing that drill, we realized when the boards were made, they weren’t labeled and only one board fit each window. So that took us hours to figure that out. Luckily, it was a nice, beautiful day. We didn’t actually have an emergency. We were able to figure out which window coverings bolted on each window. I can’t imagine being up on a scissor lift in 20-mile-an-hour winds at the beginning of a storm trying to do this.
So drills are a very important thing that you want to run maybe once a year, have some fun with it. I’m personally a member of a group called AIC Cert, the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. It’s their cultural emergency response team. They run drills where we go through and we pretend, Well, what would have happened if this area was flooded? What would we do if this area had gas leaks? Things like that. So lots of great drills you can use to train your staff on what to do before it’s actually needed. Another thing I want to mention is, you know, why wait? Contact these groups now. You can register online for DisasterAssistance.gov. You can preregister. FEMA actually has a great pre-disaster mitigation web site. They actually have grants available, all kinds of online aids to look at — most people, we don’t think about FEMA until it’s happened and we’re wanting money to clean up. There’s a lot of great things that FEMA has pre-disaster.
Another important thing is maybe you don’t have an internal staff. Maybe it’s you. Maybe you’ve got a garden club that oversees the cemetery. Maybe it’s part of a civic organization that you’ve taken over the care of the cemetery. You may want to think about calling a landscape disaster clean-up company. If hurricanes hit, tornadoes hit, fires hit, everyone is calling that disaster company. That’s the time that their phone is just ringing off the hook. You want to call them before the storm, talk to them, work a relationship up with them, have them come out, check out what kind of trees you have, what kind of canopy you have, talk with them about what is your most important issues. You know, if we have a big storm that comes through, we have trees down, we first want you to clear out the roadway so we can get in and inspect the stones, inspect the mausoleums, that sort of thing. You know, build up a working relationship with these groups before they’re needed.
Also, the last on the list is a group called DMORT. This is somebody we don’t think about much, they don’t get a lot of credit, but DMORT is actually the emergency morgue — the emergency morticians that get called out as part of FEMA. So if you have a large disaster, this is actually a mobile mortuary that comes and sets up, and these are mostly volunteers that are morticians from around country that come in to help with disasters. This is a really important group if you have a historic cemetery, and most importantly if you have an active cemetery. Find out who your DMORT people are in the area, get to know them, talk to them, say, Hey, you know, I’m worried if we have a disaster we’re going to need you guys. That’s who comes in and puts the bodies back, puts loose and missing coffins, relocates those for you, that sort of thing. So, very important group. Doesn’t get a lot of notoriety, but do an incredible job.
So we’ve talked about before the storm. We’ve talked about what do we do to get ready for it. So now we’re going to mention what do we do after. Disaster has struck. We’ve had our disaster. What do we do about it? What have we already planned? What didn’t we plan for? And what are we going to do? So when we talk about disasters, we could have flood, we could have winds, tornadoes, hurricanes, ice damage.
I know here in Louisiana we sort of forget about our colleagues up north and the incredible amount of damage that ice storms can do. Especially in cemeteries, you’ve got water pooled up in places. A really bad ice storm, it’s amazing how many obelisks and statues just slide right off. Fire. And, of course, man-made. We sort of think about disasters as mother nature coming in on us, but definitely we want to talk a little bit about man-made disasters.
So our disaster has struck. This is the time we want to take a deep breath. The damage has been done. It’s done. We can’t stop it. We can’t slow it down. It’s over. Now it’s time to sort of take a breath. Remember what we trained about. Remember our checklist. Remember our training and start doing the things that we’ve planned on. So the first thing we want to do is we want to identify hazards. Do we have power lines down? Do we have sinkholes? As anyone knows that works for a cemetery, there’s always holes in a cemetery. Do we have new holes that have opened up? Do we have unstable markers and trees? Mark these areas of uncertainty. We want to put our caution tape up. We want to put the cones around it, because we don’t want our volunteers coming in, our landscape disaster crew coming in, and them finding that sinkhole that we already found earlier or them locating that vault that was collapsing that we already located. We want to make sure that we notify anyone coming in of the issues that we might have found.
So after the disaster, documentation again. We’ve developed a rapid cemetery assessment form. This is designed to sort of go in and figure out what happened, sort of document some of the damage. You can find it on the URL seen there. You can also find it on our web site by just putting in “documentation” or “cemetery documentation,” either one. There’s lots of tied words that will take you to it. This might be something that you’re interested in having and filling out. There’s also a definition and instruction sheet that goes with that.
So the biggest thing, the most important thing that we deal with is tree removal. That’s our number one issue in a historic cemetery. The historic trees are what make our landscape unique. That’s one of the things that adds character and beauty to our cemeteries. We love the trees. But they also do a lot of the damage that we have. So tree removal, the people who are doing it, do you have internal staff? Have they been trained? Do they have the equipment? Do they know what to do, you know, how to cut to keep from causing more damage. How to cut the larger pieces so they don’t fall onto the stones that are already there. Have you contracted with a landscape disaster company? In doing that, have you discussed the importance of your site? This isn’t someone’s yard. This isn’t a park. This is a sculpture garden. These are important works of art all around us and need to be extremely careful and cared for. Do they know that? Are they insured? Do they know how to cover the stones up when they’re cutting around them? There’s some great information on our web site through the Olmsted Center and through our landscapes program about tree removal and cutting and protecting the site.
Also in that, do not discard any materials! Any materials! Bag them, tag them, label them. Let the conservator decide that. Don’t throw anything out, even if it looks like, Oh, there’s no way anyone can use this. It’s all — you know, it’s busted up. It’s just tiny little pieces. Let the professional make that decision. Let the conservator decide what can be used and what can’t.
This is a great example. This is some work done in Kentucky by Monument Conservation Collaborative. They had an ice storm come through that area, took down a group of trees, and did immense damage to the cemetery. Luckily, the cemetery had the foresight to keep every little part. And you can see here all the little pieces and parts they labeled and put in storage, and when Monument Conservation Collaborative was able to come in and do the work, they had all these parts to work with in the conservation efforts to restore the site. So this is one of the important things to include in training. Sort of mention to your staff, Hey, guys, if you’re doing the tree cutting, don’t throw anything out. Make sure we hang on to everything.
So pretty much now we’ve only talked about natural disasters. Also want to talk about man-made disasters. These can be trained for as well. These can be prepared for. If you’re in an area that has a lot of graffiti, is prone to graffiti, it’s something even if you haven’t had it yet, unfortunately, you’re probably going to have it. This is something you need to think about. Read up, talk to people, what’s working for them as far as graffiti removal.
I personally have gone out to different monument builders, talked to them, what’s worked for them, but also a lot of monument builders have historic stones that they’ve replaced in cemeteries with newer granite. I’ve gotten historic stone from them that we’ve mocked up and we’ve practiced cleaning graffiti, sites I’ve worked in. We practice. Okay, we’re going to pretend this area got tagged. What are we going to do about it? Are these products going to help us? What products are good? What products aren’t? And then, you know, do a little experiment, test around, see what works well for you. If you find one that works well for you, have some on hand.
Train a couple people on how to do this. If you don’t have a staff, maybe find a conservator in the area, talk to them. Because in my opinion, if you get graffiti, if we have our man-made disaster here, we’ve been tagged, this becomes really, really important to deal with this as a top priority. And the reason is we know statistically graffiti encourages more graffiti, and we don’t want that. We want to sort of nip this in the bud, stop this before it goes too far.
Now, you might have graffiti like in the first slide where someone is just tagging their area, they’re just telling everybody. You may have graffiti that is racially, religiously hate motivated. This, in my opinion, warrants a little bit of a different hand. There’s two rules of thought. Usually when this happens, the first thing people do is they call the local newspaper and they get them out and they say, Oh, my gosh, we’ve been attacked. This is horrible and we need to tell everybody about it. And it is horrible. It’s the worst thing — it invades our trust. It leaves us feeling vulnerable. It leaves us as the cemetery and its conservators with an equal amount of hate.
However, the person who did this wanted their message to be known. They had an agenda. They wanted people to know how they felt. In doing that, you’ve justified this person, you’ve validated their act of vandalism by calling in the newspaper, for the newspaper to run an ad, or the local news comes down, they talk about it, and now instead of a few people saw it, your entire county, your whole region, maybe nationally knows what happened. Anyone sitting there watching that who has a similar message of hate is thinking, Hey, that was a pretty good idea. Now, if I do it, thousands of people are going to know about it, too, and, boy, my message will get out. So in my opinion, as a conservator, as a cemetery preservationist, my opinion is, if you have this sort of vandalism, keep it under wraps. Cover it up. Tarp it. Put up plywood. Call in a conservator. Bring in your trained staff and remove this immediately. And just be done with it and have it gone. I’m not a big fan of announcing it. I think it sort of validates their vandalism.
So priorities. We come in on a site. We have this damage. What do we do about it? Our training kicks in, but we have to decide — we have to know beforehand, also, what’s our priority. A lot of people I’ve talked to over the years, they come in, they say, All right, we need to stand the headstones up. That stone isn’t going anywhere. It’s down, it’s staying down. We need to make the priority clearing the site so that we can inspect all the stones. We need to stabilize the ones that are damaged, and maybe that includes laying them down. Maybe we need to lay some down that are tilting or leaning that may fall on their own. It’s going to do a lot less damage for you to gently lay it down than to have it fall and potentially chip, crack, break. But also the human factor… is it going to fall — inevitably, it’s going to fall when someone is there. So we want to lay it down before we have to worry about those safety issues. But to make that a priority, figure out what has to be done first. Do we just need to clear the roadways so the trucks can come in and do the work? Maybe there are no trucks coming. Maybe we just need to clear the areas around the stones themselves to be able to do some work.
Also for priorities, if we look at this, you know, whoever came to this did the right thing. It might be hard to see, but they’ve put up their yellow caution tape all the way around. They sort of blocked it off to warn people, you know, We still have these large marble panels that are moving. These aren’t stabilized. These could fall at any moment. We want to keep people away from that. We want to come in, we want to photograph it, figure out what pieces we have, start figuring out — hopefully we have some documentation of where these panels go back and if these were full at one point or not. Then start making that a priority, calling DMORT, talking to them, talking to your local Sheriff’s Department and saying, Hey, we’ve got this mausoleum, it was damaged. We had floods, high winds, whatever, and we’re missing some people. We know who they are. We know where they were buried.
So for stabilization efforts, a lot of times when we have a large storm, maybe it’s a tornado, maybe it’s a hurricane, ice storm sometimes, a lot of times you’ll have another one right behind it. So one of the priorities may be stabilization, just temporary emergency stabilization such as this. We have stacked burial vaults. The top has been blown off. We have damage down the side. If we have another storm right behind, which is fairly common, this is going to fill up with water. That water pressure, that weight pressure is going to break this apart even further. It’s going to push the other remaining sides out. So it’s important — you see the gentlemen in these pictures are coming in, they’re tarping it, they’re trying to keep more water out of it until conservation can be done, until preservation can be done on it. But the most important thing is just to stabilize it to begin with. Maybe you’ve got some low vaults that have been broken open. We want to keep water out.
We also mentioned a little bit earlier about our mausoleum. Maybe you’re coming out to your site and this is what you’re finding. We have these grave depressions. They most likely had a coffin in them before our storm, before our flood, and we’ve lost these now. These have come out, they’ve floated away. You’ve got to call in help. You need to call FEMA or DMORT, local Sheriff’s Department, things like that. Identify, photograph, talk to them. Hopefully your records are intact and you can sort of say, Okay, we know who was buried in this area, we still have our records.
And in that I conclude today’s webinar on disaster preparedness for historic cemeteries.
My contact information is included. Feel free if you’re watching this recorded to e-mail me if you have questions, comments. If anyone out there needs advice or needs help, doesn’t mean necessarily that I would know the answer, but I’ll do my best to find the person who does. E-mail is always best, but I’m always very happy to help.
Any comments, any questions, I’m very, very happy to answer those. So thank you for your time and hopefully you’ve gained some information in this that will help your site in the future. Thank you again.