How do you prepare for the worst at your historic site? With the increase in dramatic, extreme weather conditions, there has been renewed emphasis on disaster planning. There are numerous resources through AASLH and other organizations that you can consult to help you develop a first rate disaster plan.

Disaster planning is a must for organizations of any size and in any location. And although I have created a disaster plan for my organization, and have taught workshops on disaster planning, the stark reality of an actual disaster was a sober reminder of the importance of proper planning.

On Sunday, March 2, the Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary and Museum in Ellsworth, Maine, burned. Local museum professionals, including myself and Julia Clark, Curator of Collections at the Abbe Museum, propelled into action and assisted this largely volunteer-led organization. We meet with museum officials, offered advice, purchased emergency supplies for them, connected them to resources in Maine, and generally offered them support. We also toured the charred remains the historic house that burned. Although much can be saved, much will also be lost.

My experience from the Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary and Museum leads me to suggest the following broad suggestions on disaster planning.

  1. Keep it simple. I have often seen very detailed plans on how to first respond to emergencies. Details are good, and indeed important. But when disaster strikes a simple bulleted list of immediate steps to take perhaps are most helpful. Save the details for the recovery portions of the plan. Even armed with the best disaster plan, you will be overwhelmed at first.
  2. Develop a disaster kit. A good disaster kit will have everything you need to start responding to a disaster immediately. It will also give you a feeling of confidence and save the aggravation of multiple supply trips to local stores. It will not prevent a disaster but it will make you more prepared.
  3. Get your board involved immediately. You and your staff are not alone. Schedule a board meeting as soon as possible. In your disaster plan, include governance mechanisms to form emergency task forces for site security, public relations, volunteer management, object recovery, etc. Board participation is critical to a successful recovery.
  4. Be prepared for donations. Disasters spike public interest and often charitable donations. Prepare and publicize a list of needed in-kind donations in order to get what you need. Work with your financial institution to open a special account for monetary donations. Often banks will accept contributions directly allowing organizations to focus their efforts on the immediate recovery efforts.
  5. Review your insurance. Before disaster strikes, review your insurance policy to ensure you have the coverage you need. Have your Finance Committee audit the policy once a year so that multiple people are aware of the coverage limits and so that you can adjust those limits as needed.
  6. Take your time. Pace yourself. Beyond the physical destruction, disasters also take a large emotional toll and the stress can have a lasting impact on your health. Recovery will take time. Take frequent breaks. Celebrate the small steps along the way. Sustained, paced effort will make for a better recovery and help you stay healthy.
  7. Review and update your plan. The best plans go to waste if both board and staff do not review them yearly. Yearly reviews can help organizations have the confidence that they will be able to respond, recover, and evolve after disaster strikes. Make disaster planning yearly process.
  8. Be involved in your community. The more your organization is involved in the community, the more likely the community will rally to help our organization after a disaster. Your community also has many resources to help in the recovery process. Civic organizations can help organize volunteer efforts. Other organizations might be able to provide temporary storage.  If your organization serves the community well, it will rally to help your organization in time of need,

May 1 is designated as MayDay and all historic and cultural organizations are encouraged to do at least one thing related to disaster preparedness. Get this event on your calendar today. Don’t wait until it is too late.

Joshua Campbell Torrance is the Executive Director of the Woodlawn Museum, Gardens and Park in Ellsworth, ME. He is also a member of the AASLH Historic House Museum Affinity Group Committee.