CHARLESTON, W. VA.-- Whenever a flooding disaster occurs, a behind-the-scenes effort to preserve each community’s historical heritage is set in motion. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state historical preservationists help equip communities to make informed decisions on historic properties slated for repair or demolition.
When a community determines to demolish a building, the historical preservationists first determine whether or not the building is historically important. If it is, photos are taken and the flood damage documented for future historians. And when a historic building just needs repair, they provide each community with guidelines on the best, historically accurate materials, based on the Secretary of the Interior’s “Guidelines for Restoring Historic Buildings”.
Historic preservationists work with FEMA as well as state and local officials to assess damaged buildings. The goal of the historic preservationist is to restore all public historic properties back to their original condition as soon as possible, while at the same time satisfying all regulatory agencies.
According to David Livingston, historic preservationist for FEMA, “I work closely with the EPA and the State Historic Preservation Officer. Together, we follow guidelines put forth by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) to make our determinations.”
Wheeling was one of the hardest hit West Virginia cities when Hurricane Ivan passed through. It is one of only 23 congressionally designated National Heritage Areas in the United States. Wheeling Island, flooded many times over the past two centuries of its history, has over 1,000 historic buildings on the island. As of mid-November there has been no loss of historic properties on Wheeling Island.
According to Lou Botta, federal coordinating officer for FEMA, “The historical preservationist works closely with the environmental liaison officer and local officials previous to demolition, assuring compliance with all available laws. This can include everything from underground tanks and utility lines to environmental issues such as clean water, wetlands and endangered species.”
There are numerous historical preservation stories to illustrate the importance of this work in disaster recovery. In New Martinsville the Wetzel County Courthouse needed to replace basement windows. The Lincoln Theater, also in New Martinsville, had to replace damaged floor tiles. In both cases the historic preservationist researched suppliers to help the community obtain historically accurate reproductions.
In Brooke County, damaged historical sites requiring the services of a historical preservationist included Millers Tavern in Wellsburg, and the County’s first log cabin, now serving as a museum. Millers Tavern is now home to the Brooke County Historical Society.
Archeology is also an important consideration. For instance, when FEMA establishes a temporary mobile home site for people who have lost their homes, and the site must be leveled, there is an initial site assessment that includes researching for remains of previous historical structures and old cemeteries, both European and tribal.
State and local governments are placing increasing emphasis on preserving their history as a way to attract tourist dollars. Historic preservationists play an important role in both flood recovery and historical preservation efforts.
On March 1, 2003, FEMA became part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. FEMA's continuing mission within the new department is to lead the effort to prepare the nation for all hazards and effectively manage federal response and recovery efforts following any national incident. FEMA also initiates proactive mitigation activities, trains first responders, and manages the National Flood Insurance Program and the U.S. Fire Administration.