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SAA Participates in Summit on Emergency Preparedness

Ralph Johnson

Floods, earthquakes, and other disasters have recently inflicted billions of dollars of damage on communities throughout the United States. In the wake of these catastrophes, cultural institutions and historic properties--repositories of America's collective memory--have also suffered severe damage. In some cases, irreplaceable artifacts, buildings, artworks, books, and manuscripts were lost forever.

On December 1, 1994, in Washington, D.C., the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property (NIC) convened the National Summit on Emergency Response: Safeguarding Our Cultural Heritage. The summit brought together more than 80 representatives of cultural and historic organizations, including the Society for American Archaeology and federal agencies, to begin developing a national emergency response plan for cultural institutions.

Speakers drew on their experiences in the Loma Prieta and Northridge quakes, the flood of the Mississippi River, and hurricanes Andrew and Hugo to identify general principles to indicate that efforts must embody the proactive as well as the reactive. "We are pretty good at reacting, but reacting is not good enough. We need to anticipate," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Valuable things are at risk, and if they're lost, they're lost forever." National Park Service Director Roger Kennedy concurred with Moe's assessment. "We are dealing with the containers of community," he said. "In every container, the community manifests itself. We're here to protect these containers."

FEMA Director James Lee Witt signaled the agency's willingness to work more closely with national organizations to prevent and mitigate loss to significant cultural and historic property. "FEMA is committed to working with the cultural and historic preservation communities," said Witt, "but we need your expertise and we need to expand the partnership." He offered five ways of collaborating:

The summit resulted in a broad commitment from the groups represented to work cooperatively towards the protection of cultural resources, and afforded an opportunity to reinforce linkages between the archaeological, cultural, and preservation communities. It also underscored that disasters can profoundly impact all forms of archaeological resources -- in situ materials, curated artifacts, underwater sites, research libraries, and field notes in the archaeologist's possession, to name a few examples.

If you have examples of how disasters have affected archaeological resources, ideas for actions SAA might undertake to develop emergency preparedness in the archaeological community (how about a workshop at the annual meeting?), or would like a photocopy of any of the information collected at the summit (including the results of an NIC- conducted survey on how organizations respond to emergencies), contact Ralph Johnson at the SAA office.

Let's not wait until a disaster strikes again!

This article was adapted from Council Update (Winter 1995), the newsletter of the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property, Washington, D.C. Ralph Johnson is executive director of SAA.

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