With the historic preservation expertise of the NCPTT and the proximity of the Center to the Gulf Coast, the Center was involved in the cultural resource response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The NCPTT has had a long interest in disaster mitigation and response for cultural resources and has funded research dealing with the issue.

One of the Center’s research priorities is to “protect cultural resources against vandalism, looting, terrorism and natural disasters.” After the 2005 hurricanes that affected the Gulf Coast, the NCPTT became involved in cultural resource recovery as members of the Heritage Emergency National Taskforce, leading a collaborative effort by

  • developing assessment tools
  • embedding staff members with FEMA
  • creating a web-based clearinghouse for technical information on disaster recovery
  • helping create Team Tarp — Operation Roof Aid — in New Orleans
  • organizing and sponsoring wet recovery workshops for museum collections and
  • providing technical assistance to FEMA, communities, and individuals.
Failed Sea Wall in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. Photo: Unknown.

Failed Sea Wall in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. Photo: Unknown.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that prior to September 2005 there were 4,913,897 total housing units inside the FEMA designated Individual and Public Assistance Areas in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.1 While not every structure in this area was affected, 100,000s suffered minor to massive damage from wind and water. In Louisiana alone 204,500 homes were damaged by the 2005 Hurricanes.2 This number does not account for the structures that house businesses, offices, hospitals, or utilities.

One of the immediate problems facing historic structures after a disaster is the initial condition assessment that can possibly determine whether or not they are demolished. Post-disaster assessment forms vary widely from city to city and state to state with no way to compile historic information, and they often ignore the historic value of structures. The Heritage Emergency National Task Force recommended developing standardized and streamlined assessment tools that reasonably ensure historic information is gathered on all structures, which can be used long-term by national, state and local preservation organizations.

NCPTT’s Andrew Ferrell, Chief of Architecture and Engineering Program, and Mary Striegel, Chief of the Material Research
Program, worked with FEMA in the Greater New Orleans area. Ferrell participated in reviewing the historic integrity and conditions of all redtagged buildings in the City’s National Register Districts while Striegel provided condition assessment of damaged library and museum collections and technical assistance in collections recovery. This experience led to a number of presentations and discussions about disaster preparedness and response for cultural resources across the United States.

The NCPTT compiled hurricane technical assistance data for cultural resources and added it to its home page, providing links to the NPS and non-NPS information. The NCPTT website became one of the primary national information resources for the cultural resource response. NPS provides direct links to this page at http://www.nps.gov/katrina/, where the NPS posts all information on hurricane response and recovery. The NPS maintains a list of historic sites and museums impacted by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma on the NCPTT website.

Team Tarp - Operation Roof Aid — in New Orleans

Team Tarp – Operation Roof Aid — in New Orleans

In disaster areas, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers runs a temporary tarping program that installs plastic sheeting over damaged roofs. Unfortunately, this program does not install tarps on roofs covered with metal, tile, slate, asbestos, and other hard roofing materials often used on historic buildings. The NCPTT worked with partners in New Orleans to provide assistance to homeowners with damaged roofs that were not eligible for the Corps’ program. Building on these efforts, the NCPTT entered into an agreement with the Tulane School of Architecture and Tarp New Orleans (TNO) to produce, edit and
publish a substantial body of information pertaining to the preservation work of TNO to tarp historic structures in New Orleans immediately after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The project will result in technical information on methods, materials and approaches to tarping; an analysis of the data gathered and varying results of the overall tarping effort, and preliminary data from the NCPTT materials science testing of selected tarping materials.

The Materials Research Program, in partnership with American Institute for Conservation and numerous state and federal agencies, held workshops titled After the Storm: Recovery of Wet Collections in March 2006. Funding for the workshops was provided by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and donations from several other partners. These workshops were offered to assist persons in charge of cultural collections with post-disaster response and planning for future disasters.

Post Disaster Lessons

641 Caffin

641 Caffin

While many lessons were learned post Katrina and Rita concerning health and safety, civil works, and in other areas, perhaps the most critical lesson in all areas is that time is of the essence. While taking care of life safety issues is the highest priority post disaster and clearly requires the quickest response, the survivability of historic buildings is time sensitive.

One of the most critical lessons is the importance of having an up-to-date survey of historic buildings and sites. Critical to disaster planning, mitigation, and recovery is having a reliable inventory of all historic properties and other
resources of the area, including maps of historic building sites. Normally state and local preservation organizations collect such information. However, it is not always entirely up-to-date, nor easily accessible after a disaster.


1Gulf Coast Area Data Profiles, U.S. Census Bureau, (PDF, accessed 9 April 2007).

2Hurricane Katrina Anniversary Data for Louisiana, Louisiana Recovery Authority, 20 August 2006 (PDF, accessed 9 April 2007).

Portions of this document originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of The Louisiana Civil Engineer and is republished with permission.