Preservation Magazine, Fall 2023

President's Note: Natural Disasters and Historic Places

Jay Clemens, Interim President and CEO

Since the National Trust was established in 1949, the organization has been responsible for stewarding historic American sites, buildings, objects, and antiquities of national significance. We know that doing so successfully requires regular condition assessments and sound financial planning. But as climate change increases the frequency of destructive weather events, historic places are at greater risk from water, wind, and wildfire damage than ever before. In the United States, for example, weather and climate disasters causing more than $1 billion in damage are on the rise. Over the last five years we’ve seen an average of 18 of these costly disasters per year. Compare that with the early 2000s, when the average (adjusted for inflation) was less than seven. In 2022, weather and climate disasters caused at least $165 billion in damage.

One such disaster ripped through the Midwest on August 10, 2020, killing four people and causing more than $11 billion in damage. The derecho—a fast-moving thunderstorm packing hurricane-force winds—devastated Brucemore, a National Trust Historic Site in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It caused $3 million in damage to the site’s buildings, not to mention the landscape, which lost more than 400 mature, character-defining trees. In our fall issue, we detail Brucemore’s ongoing recovery.

And while natural disasters are becoming more frequent and more intense, perhaps nothing compares to the disaster that recently struck Maui with particular severity, decimating the historic community of Lahaina. The tremendous loss of life is deeply saddening, and this tragedy is an urgent reminder of how weather and climate disasters can erase the physical manifestations of our shared cultural heritage in a singular event. It highlights the need for increased preparation, protection, and resources for preservation.

It is daunting work, but it is work we need to address. Combating rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, sea-level rise, and extreme weather events may involve constructing barriers such as seawalls, restoring natural buffer zones, and even considering the relocation of structures that cannot be adequately protected. Historic sites can also be protected by implementing disaster preparedness plans that include strategies for fortifying structures against extreme weather. Sound stewardship of historic sites should include regular inspections, leak repairs, and adequate drainage systems to help manage moisture-related issues.

Weather- and climate-related disasters are making headlines far too often, and mitigating the impact of climate change on historic places requires a combination of physical interventions, adaptive management, innovative technologies, and community engagement. While some impacts may be unavoidable, proactive planning and maintenance efforts can help ensure that the cultural heritage embodied in historic places is preserved for future generations.
Jay Clemens, Interim President and CEO

Jay Clemens served as the chair of the board of trustees from November 2020–March 2023, and interim president & CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from March 2023–January 2024.

Announcing the 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

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