skip to content
Primary navigation

I. Introduction to Disaster Planning

Austin following the tornado of August 1928

1. Introduction

Disasters happen, and unfortunately, damage to or destruction of historic properties are among the tragedies that can result. Historic buildings are especially vulnerable due to their prominence of location, design, and fragile materials. While natural disasters cannot be prevented, important steps can be taken before a disaster strikes to minimize the threat of damage. Disaster preparedness is everyone's responsibility.

It is equally important to be prepared when a disaster strikes and to know where to turn for help and the steps to take to begin the recovery following a disaster. Unless assessment and remedial action are taken immediately, historic resources will be lost, as they are truly irreplaceable.

When disaster occurs, it is important to remember not to make hasty decisions. As we admire these properties for having stood the test of time, it is imperative that we take time and seek expert guidance before making critical decisions about their future. While the situation may seem discouraging at first, with careful planning and sensitive attention, even severely damaged properties may be returned to their former quality.

1.1 Purpose

The purpose of this plan is to provide information and assistance to owners of historic properties, local governments, and disaster assessment and relief personnel when historic buildings, sites, or archaeological sites are vulnerable to or have been damaged by a natural disaster. Historic properties are defined as those listed on the National Register of Historic Places individually or as a contributing property in a district, determined to be eligible to the National Register, or locally designated by a Heritage Preservation Commission. Generally, buildings must be at least 50 years old and embody distinctive design characteristics or have associations with events or persons significant in state or local history to be eligible for listing on the National Register.

The plan examines building types and materials that are common to Minnesota, and the effect that natural disasters such as tornadoes, straight line winds, floods, fires, snow and ice can have on them. Tools to help with disaster planning before, during and after a natural disaster will be part of the plan. The plan also includes a bibliography of resources and contacts that can provide information and assistance on natural disasters.

Personal and public safety are always the first concern when planning for natural disasters. Once safety issues have been addressed, then concerns for property and structures can be considered.

1.2 Key Players in Disaster Planning

Public safety issues will involve all local law enforcement, fire protection, medical assistance and volunteer organizations during and after a natural disaster. The Minnesota Department of Emergency Management is set up to coordinate disaster relief efforts and will quickly be on site to mobilize all available assistance that is needed. The Red Cross is one of the key organizations that is organized to provide assistance and relief for victims of natural disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the federal agency that has responsibility for disaster management. FEMA is a very comprehensive resource that links to many other resources.

Property damage issues will involve many of the same organizations as well as additional ones that are specifically concerned with property damage. This will include FEMA and/or local building code inspectors who will be on site to assess the extent of property damage. The Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) will be the key organization to provide information and assistance to historic property owners, and other organizations involved with property damage issues as a result of the disaster. The Minnesota Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (Minnesota AIA) can mobilize volunteer architects to work with SHPO to assess property damage to historic properties. This partnership was especially successful after the St. Peter tornado in 1998.

The Minnesota Association of Building Inspectors is also working a Disaster Preparedness Manual as a guidebook for Minnesota Building Officials. A June 1999 draft of this document is available for review and the final form of this manual will be available in 2000.

1.3 Recent Natural Disasters

During the 1990s, Minnesota has experienced a number of significant natural disasters that have caused considerable damage to historic and non-historic structures throughout the state. The Mississippi and Minnesota River floods of 1993, and the Minnesota and Red River valley floods of 1997 resulted in major flood damage to areas that had not experienced flooding in many decades. River valleys are susceptible to periodic floods, but the scale of the recent floods adversely affected areas thought to be high enough or safe enough due to prevention measures in place.

St. Peter experienced unprecedented tornado damage in March of 1998. The scale and area of damage clearly illustrated the strengths and weaknesses of historic and contemporary building construction. Straight line wind storms have also caused major damage in the last few years including numerous storms in the summer of 1998 in the Twin City area and the severe storm along the Gunflint Trail in July, 1999.

Fire has often been a consequence of damage from wind storms or flooding such as in Grand Forks/East Grand Forks during the 1997 flood. The threat of forest fire still exists but has not resulted in major damage in recent years. The Boundary Waters area along the Gunflint Trail was threatened by forest fire a few years ago and could be threatened again as a result of the recent wind storm damage.

1.4 Recent Post Disaster Efforts in Minnesota

The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) was allocated $100,000 in federal funds after the 1993 floods to fund assessment and stabilization of flood damaged historic properties along with some focus group discussions on the impact of the floods. In another flood related disaster, SHPO was allocated $35,000 in federal money to fund an assessment of the effect of the 1997 floods on historic structures and archaeological sites in the Minnesota River and Red River valleys. An architectural firm was contracted to conduct the study and to offer technical assistance to affected building owners. This study identified the need for technical assistance and SHPO contacts to help with damaged properties.

A million dollar fund of State of Minnesota money, administered by SHPO, was set aside for assistance to historic properties after the St. Peter tornado in 1998. Later in the year an additional $350,000 in state disaster relief funds was earmarked for historic preservation assistance. Volunteer architects recruited by SHPO and Minnesota AIA provided on-site evaluation and recommendations to property owners. Because of a programmatic agreement executed in 1997, SHPO was able to quickly and efficiently coordinate the Section 106 process. SHPO staff accompanied FEMA officials on tours of damaged historic properties and also helped staff disaster response centers after the tornado. This recovery effort has established a process and resources that can be kept ready for the next natural disaster.

The 1999 statewide preservation conference "Thinking About the Unthinkable" was held at St. Peter during Historic Preservation Week in May. The conference was jointly sponsored by SHPO and the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. The concept of the disaster plan for historic properties was presented at one of the conference sessions by Britta Bloomberg (Deputy SHPO), Robert Claybaugh (Architect) and Terri Smith (MN Dept. Emergency Management). A questionnaire was distributed to all participants to elicit responses on what information would be valuable to historic property owners. The most frequent responses were requests for engineers, architects and contractors who were knowledgeable about historic buildings; advice on evaluation of damage; sources of tarps; and advice to owners about salvaging historic building materials.

1.5 Project Team

Claybaugh Preservation Architecture Inc.: Project coordination and the building portion of the disaster plan were developed by CPAi Principal Robert J. Claybaugh AIA.

Hemisphere Field Services, Inc.: An archaeology section of the disaster plan was developed by staff archaeologist Ronald C. Schirmer and is available by contacting the SHPO.

back to top