Protecting 9/11 Artifacts from Floods

By Jennifer Maloney The Wall Street Journal

After superstorm Sandy inundated the 9/11 Museum and nearly submerged some of the massive artifacts in an under-construction exhibition space, officials are developing a plan to protect its most fragile and emotionally evocative items–photographs, missing-person posters, wallets, prayer cards and other keepsakes from victims.

The Oct. 29 storm flooded the underground museum with more than 7 feet of water, causing small amounts of damage to large artifacts such as firetrucks, an ambulance and World Trade Center steel, including the “Last Column,” which bears inscriptions from first responders, recovery workers and family members.Smaller, more delicate items were safe in off-site storage, but museum officials said the flood made them step back and take stock of their safety should another storm of Sandy’s magnitude strike. These objects, which carry deep personal meaning for the family members who donated them, would be located below street level in one of the most flood-prone areas of the city, said Joe Daniels, president of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

“The World Trade Center site is in Zone A, and that’s not going to change,” he said. “What is our protocol and procedures for saving the most irreplaceable items?”

Flooding from Sandy has led 9/11 Museum officials to reevaluate their plans.

When forecasters warn of a major storm, “Which ones can we take out, where do we put them, how do we remove them?” Mr. Daniels said. “We’re looking at all of that right now.”

The 9/11 Museum was among several of the city’s cultural institutions to be affected by Sandy. Others were hit much harder.

The South Street Seaport Museum’s tall ships weathered the storm, but its mechanical systems–escalator, elevator, heating and air conditioning–were all knocked out.

Replacements are expected to cost millions, a “big, big blow” for the financially struggling museum, said Susan Henshaw Jones, the museum’s director. She said she plans to install new equipment on a higher floor to protect it from future floods.

New York City Opera’s archives and musical scores were damaged by floodwaters in basement storage. Galleries in Chelsea have been working to salvage sodden artwork.

The precautions now being contemplated at the 9/11 Museum are fraught with a heightened sense of urgency because much of its collection was donated by the families of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack victims.

The museum has begun examining how floodwaters entered the exhibit space, and whether flooding can be prevented next time a dangerous storm hits. The Port Authority of ┬áNew York and New Jersey, which controls the World Trade Center site and is in charge of the museum’s construction, also is looking at how to prevent flooding in the future.

The museum’s main exhibition space is seven stories beneath street level, and incorporates the foundations of the World Trade Center.

The floodwater poured sideways into the museum from a vehicle screening center under construction just to the south of the museum, Port Authority officials said. The open site was vulnerable to Sandy’s storm surge because it didn’t have a roof, said Steve Plate, the Port Authority’s director of World Trade Center construction.

The World Trade Center site’s design includes elements that should help protect against flooding, but the Port Authority is re-evaluating that design because of Sandy, Mr. Plate said through a spokesman. “As we continue our assessments, we will implement additional strategic flood-mitigation efforts,” he said.

One open question is whether the storm will further push back the museum’s opening date. Officials who once hoped to launch the museum last September had to push the date back to late 2013 or early 2014 because of disputes between the mayor and the governors of New York and New Jersey over construction costs and control of the site. The storm did cause construction setbacks–some sheet rock will have to be torn out and replaced, and construction lifts were damaged. But the overall impact isn’t clear.

The 9/11 Memorial Plaza survived the storm virtually untouched, though the above-ground visitors center and security screening room were hard hit. The visitors center remains closed, but visitors are being allowed onto the plaza through a temporary screening center.

The 9/11 Museum didn’t have specific flood safeguards for the large artifacts in an underground exhibition space, but, having already survived the terrorist attack, they were durable. Firetrucks and an ambulance were shrink-wrapped to protect them from construction. The Last Column was inside a wooden enclosure that didn’t keep the floodwater out. Though it previously was covered in mementos and posters, those had been removed and placed in storage, said Alice Greenwald, director of the museum.

The damage to the large objects is minimal and can be reversed, she said. The vast majority of the water had been pumped out by last Monday. Conservators are now working to dehumidify the museum and clean off flash rusting and corrosion from the steel beams, she said. When she saw the Last Column for the first time after the flood, “I had tears in my eyes,” Ms. Greenwald said.

The personal messages scratched and drawn in marker were still there, “completely intact,” she said. The high water mark rested just below the signatures of the city’s Department of Design and Construction–the last group to sign the column.

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