Saving History Saturday: History Versus Hurricanes

Just days ago, eyes were glued to national news as Hurricane Dorian set its target on the Bahamas and the southeastern seaboard. A Category 5, Dorian wreaked havoc, destroying not only property and infrastructure, but the lives of millions. Fortunately, countless emergency personnel, meteorologists, climatologists, and national and local leaders are trying to predict, plan, and prepare for hurricanes. But, what about our historic sites in the path of these catastrophic storms?

Dorian billows over Fort Pulaski. Courtesy of Fort Pulaski National Monument.

As Dorian approached Georgia’s eastern coastline, National Park Service rangers took an eerie photograph of Fort Pulaski’s walls and guns facing the storm’s billowing clouds. The site’s Facebook page wrote a caption perfectly describing the ominous situation: “The three artillery pieces on top of the fort’s walls look as though they’ve just fired at an unseen enemy. Fort Pulaski, however, is once again in the sights of mother nature.” For Fort Pulaski, whose fragile walls are falling prey to Mother Nature already, another massive hurricane is quite overwhelming and required thoughtful planning and preparation; especially to prevent what had happened in 2017 in the Virgin Islands.

Tornado damage in Jefferson City. Courtesy of News Tribune.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria slammed into the Virgin Islands, causing serious damage to historic sites and monuments. According to The Virgin Islands Daily News, because of Irma and Maria, “all of the Virgin Islands’ historic resources were included on the 31st annual list of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places,” compiled by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2018.” This even led the National Park Service to grant over $10 million to help in the restoration of historic sites damaged by the hurricanes.

It certainly makes us historians aware of the fragility of our historic sites, particularly those that are in natural disaster-prone areas, like the Gulf Coast, the Eastern Seaboard, in various flood zones, and Tornado Alley. Dorian flooded historic downtown Charleston; Jefferson City, Missouri’s historic district was wreaked by an EF3 tornado in 2019; and flooding caused catastrophic damage to historic buildings in Ellicott City, Maryland in 2018. Those are just a few examples of irreplaceable sites being damaged or destroyed by disasters. It begs the question that we can no longer afford to wait on: how can we best prepare our historic sites for natural disasters?


2 Responses to Saving History Saturday: History Versus Hurricanes

  1. If they ain’t build like the Pyramid or the Sphinx, they’re not going to make it over time. At best, we’ll be able to keep some things around for a few hundred years. The earth will simply cover up and destroy whatever is on its surface in due time. The earth won’t make it out forever itself.

    So I’m not really sure what the best solution is other than city, state, and federal recognition of historical places and hoping “the people” or some individuals (corporations even) will pay to maintain it.

    The Civil War Trust’s private land buying operation they have is as good as its get in the world probably. I know the UK has some kind of trusts set up for their historical sites and canals, but that seems to be a public/private venture. I personally think our national park system should become a joint public/private venture to better fund it and therefore better maintain it.

  2. Just for another perspective… as horrible as storms and natural disasters can be, sometimes they lead to fortuitous discovery. Storms battering Bermuda cover with sand the wrecks in the waters nearby: one particular Civil War wreck is occasionally affected by a storm that sweeps away most of the sand, exposing much more of the reasonably well preserved vessel for investigation by archaeological divers.
    In Kentucky, storms and floods affecting the Mississippi River after the Civil War resulted in the slump of the high bluff at Columbus in December 1925 …and settled an argument that historians had engaged in for years: “Was there really a barrier chain stretched across the Mississippi River from Fort Columbus to Belmont, Missouri?” The landslip exposed the remaining length of chain (manufactured at the Washington Navy Yard) and tracing it back led to discovery of the four-ton anchor, still buried ten feet deep.

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