Partner Agency: Texas Historical Commission
The Texas Historical Commission (THC), the state agency for historic preservation, is known for its range of programs preserving historic and cultural resources in Texas, such as the Texas state historical marker program and Texas Main Street Program. The agency's preservation efforts also extend to disaster preparedness and response for events including fires, flooding, drought, tornados and hurricanes. Ensuring personal safety is always the top priority in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. However, once the focus shifts to cleanup, the THC collaborates with state and federal agencies to assist property owners, local officials and municipalities in the preservation of historical properties and cultural artifacts.
The former municipal power plant building in Liberty, Texas, was heavily damaged in Hurricane Ike and ultimately demolished with FEMA funds. As part of mitigation for the loss of this historic property, FEMA prepared a historic context for Depression-era federal and state government-funded public works projects in the county.
As the State Historic Preservation Office for Texas, the THC acts as a consulting party under Section 106 of the National Preservation Act and oversees historical designations including the National Register of Historic Places, Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks (RTHLs), and State Antiquities Landmarks (SALs). Relative to disaster recovery, the agency assisted on a large scale with response to Hurricanes Ike and Rita. Staff deployed to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) field offices in Beaumont and Galveston to provide on-the-spot reviews for proposed projects, including site visits to rural areas where limited information was available on historic properties. The agency also met with Main Street Managers and Certified Local Government contacts to identify affected property owners, and offer technical assistance, information on potential funding sources and advice for needed repairs.
When historic properties in Texas sustain damage, in many cases the owner must consult with the THC prior to making repairs. Federally-funded projects for disaster recovery require Section 106 review, and projects on state or local public property require review under the Antiquities Code of Texas. These processes do not require that a building or property be designated in order to receive consideration. Immediate rescue and salvage operations to address threats to life or property are exempt from Section 106. The THC generally expects the same for other designations, but should be in contact with owners before major repair work begins.
The 1861 Galveston Custom House, which suffered flood and structural damage in Hurricane Ike, was restored by the Galveston Historical Foundation as their headquarters at that time. The building is now the corporate headquarters of DSW Homes. The Old Custom House is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and subject to a preservation covenant held by the THC.
The THC can advise owners on potential funding sources for repairs. Depending on the type of building and its use, sources may include public assistance from FEMA, Small Business Administration (SBA) loans, federal and state tax credits for rehabilitation, and additional grant options. For projects that receive federal funding, two statewide Programmatic Agreements for Section 106 review establish expedited timeframes for review and offer exemptions for certain types of work with limited potential to adversely affect historic properties. These agreements are with FEMA, the Texas Division of Emergency Management and with the General Land Office for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery program.
Historic property owners can take steps to prepare their building to minimize potential damage. Maintaining a building in good repair is an important general guideline that will help the structure weather a storm. For example, plugged gutters and downspouts can cause interior water damage during storms. A publication from FEMA, Integrating Historic Property and Cultural Resource Considerations into Hazard Mitigation Planning, provides information on how to reduce or eliminate property damage from natural and manmade hazards. Any modifications made to a building should meet the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. These standards provide the philosophical framework for decision-making at historic properties and emphasize retention of significant, character-defining features when making modifications.
Historic buildings eligible for or listed in the National Register, RTHLs, and locally designated structures may be eligible for exemptions from certain windstorm and flood insurance requirements. With a windstorm exemption, the property owner may replace historic windows, doors, and other significant elements in-kind rather than meeting current code requirements. Additionally, historic buildings may not have to be elevated above the base flood elevation. Here is an overview of the windstorm exemption program in Texas. FEMA has additional information on resources from their agency for historic property structure elevation projects.
Museums and historic sites face the challenge of protecting both buildings and irreplaceable artifacts inside. The best way to protect resources is to have an emergency preparedness plan in place, and the THC's Museum Services staff can provide assistance for museums to prepare for emergency situations which may threaten the safety of people, collections, and facilities. Following Hurricane Ike in 2008, Museum Services Staff contacted all museums and historic sites within the storm area that the agency had record of. The staff assessed individual needs for each location and provided information on the types of assistance on services offered by the THC, FEMA, and other sources.
The THC's website has a dedicated section addressing emergency preparedness resources with a disaster plan template, risk assessments, and salvage priorities. For more information, contact the THC's Museum Services staff at (512) 463-6427. Additionally, the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works National Heritage Responders offers 24-hour assistance for cultural institutions during emergencies and disasters at (202) 661-8068.
Oil Spills and Archeology
The THC's emergency response initiatives for coastal areas most commonly address flooding and hurricane disasters, but also include oil spills. Most recently, the THC was engaged in coordination for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Texas City Y oil spill in Galveston Bay. Typically, THC response to oil spills involves coordination with the Texas General Land Office, U.S. Coast Guard, National Park Service, and/or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These spills are not only catastrophic to local habitat and wildlife but also pose a threat to cultural resources in the area of effect. Though the gravity of the impact to the environment can never be understated, the protection of cultural resources is important as these also represent non-renewable assets.
The impact to historic properties from oil spills can be easily underestimated and is more than just the potential damage that can occur from the oil and associated dispersants. The emergency response itself often introduces the greatest impacts to cultural resources through direct and indirect means. Activities that can directly impact sites to a greater or lesser degree include installation or removal of oil absorbing mats, booming, mechanical cleaning of beaches, response vessel anchorages, and the creation of response staging areas. A recent study determined that oil and dispersants have a corrosive effect on shipwreck sites and accelerates degradation of metal hulled vessels and similar composition artifacts. The removal of oil from coastal structures can also present problems, which occurred when oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill washed inside Fort Livingston, a Civil War-era National Register property in Louisiana. Different treatment methods were tested to ensure they would not damage the historic brick.
During coastal and offshore cleanup, both accidental and unlawful recovery of artifacts from archeological sites can occur as responders may be unaware of federal and state laws that prohibit collection. During the Exxon Valdez response in Alaska, 24 archeological sites were adversely affected by cleanup activities or looting. In the Gulf of Mexico, oil response activities during Deepwater Horizon resulted in the accidental recovery of a historic shipwreck anchor. In an unrelated emergency response to Hurricane Ike, a debris removal survey resulted in the looting of a Civil War shipwreck site at Galveston. Texas state law protects archeological sites of every character on state public land and does not allow recovery of any type, unless performed as part of a permitted archeological investigation conducted by a qualified archeologist. In Texas, the state retains ownership of collected material culture from sites on state public lands. The U.S. government and many foreign governments often still maintain ownership of their historic shipwrecks.
The THC's Marine Archeology Program (MAP) is the agency's lead point of contact for oil and chemical spill response. The MAP represents the interests of the overall agency and monitors the projection of the spill and anticipates the potential impacts. The THC's databases, presented online as the Texas Historic Sites Atlas and the restricted Texas Archeological Sites Atlas, are used to assess and predict areas of impact. Additional THC staff are contacted as the need arises.
Archeological site information is considered sensitive and is therefore restricted information. For the purpose of planning oil spill response and cleanup activities, the MAP creates shapefiles depicting sensitive areas by illustrating large undefined avoidance-area polygons. If responders need to work within these areas, the THC coordinates directly with the individual group or groups so that this sensitive information is provided only to the relevant team and not to the entire response effort. If necessary, the THC can provide staff or identify area volunteers to monitor cleanup activities at or near significant sites or structures. This method has been effective in protecting the locations of the archeological sites and ensuring response efforts can occur efficiently with minimal interruption.
For the first time, the THC will be included in an update to the State of Texas Emergency Management Plan Agricultural and Natural Resources Annex. The THC appreciates the opportunity to work to ensure that historic properties are taken into consideration during disaster planning and response, and to provide information on preservation to affected historic property owners and managers. The THC website has a page dedicated to disaster resources with links to helpful documents. For more information, or to contact the THC in the event of the emergency, call the Division of Architecture at (512) 463-6094 or email Elizabeth Brummett.