This interview is part of the Preventive Care Network's (formerly the Collection Care Network) blog series, which features interviews with conservators and collection care professionals. The stories and insights shared in these interviews highlight the many aspects of collection care and its cross-disciplinary nature. If you have a project or story you'd like to share or know someone we should feature in this series, please contact us at email@example.com.
This edition of the blog is an interview with Kim Roche, Objects Conservator/Emergency Planning Coordinator at Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center (WLCC) in Charleston, South Carolina. This interview coincides with the PCN and AIC’s Emergency Committee's joint column in the January 2023 edition of AIC News, which highlights the unique challenges that climate change presents to collections care professionals.
Could you tell us about your own background, as well as about your institution and its collections?
I am an archaeological/ objects conservator and the Emergency Planning Coordinator at Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center (WLCC) in Charleston, South Carolina. I have worked in the public and private sectors of heritage management and conservation in the US and Europe for almost 10 years and focus primarily on artifact conservation and collections management. WLCC serves as the repository for the H.L. Hunley submarine and its associated artifacts as well as the collection of the International African American Museum (IAAM). The H.L. Hunley collection contains thousands of conserved artifacts from a marine burial environment, which require stringent environmental parameters to remain stable in storage. The IAAM collection contains hundreds of archival documents, objects, and artifacts on loan to WLCC for storage and monitoring. Additionally, we also care for numerous objects and large artifacts on loan for conservation services from various institutions.
You were involved in the effort to prepare collections from Clemson University in Charleston, South Carolina for Hurricane Ian in 2022. What types of collections had to be prepared, and how did you set your priorities? How much notice did you have to implement the evacuation, and how did you have to adjust those plans as the situation evolved?
Everything about Hurricane Ian was unique and troublesome from the start. It was such a large storm that the “cone of uncertainty” shifted dramatically in the 2-3 days prior to, and even during, its Florida landfall. Even before its catastrophic landfall on the west coast of Florida, I was having to look toward a potential second landfall in the Southeast. I knew that by the time the storm’s trajectory was known, it would be too late for our team to prepare the lab and its collections (with the necessary focus then on preparing our own homes and families). So on Tuesday, I called our team (several of whom were working off-site) and notified them that we would start preparations first thing Wednesday as Ian was making its official Florida landfall.
Given the diverse array of objects and loan items at our facility, each WLCC team member was responsible for a specific project, as well as a set list of tasks to prepare the facilities and collections. We were in a unique situation this year as a large percentage of the IAAM collection was being staged to move to the new museum. Objects had been pulled out of storage ahead of packaging and transporting them off-site and therefore had to be re-packaged and moved back into storage. In addition, we had to prep the storage spaces themselves. Fortunately, we work closely with IAAM’s amazing registrar. We were in constant communication with her leading up to storm prep, and she assisted with the preparations as well.
Ultimately, the forecast cone tightened around the South Carolina Lowcountry on Wednesday, and our facilities closure announcement came with only one hours’ notice. Thanks to our early preparations, we weren’t caught off-guard.
The added complexity of the IAAM collection move caused considerable stress for everyone involved! We discuss hurricane prep procedures with all our clients, and we communicated the plan with the IAAM registrar at the beginning of hurricane season. Everyone was on the same page, which saved a great deal of time that day.
There is almost always going to be a surprise equipment malfunction in any critical situation, and we were no different that day. During preparations, we discovered that our walk-in cooler, which stores fragile organic artifacts and samples and had been running perfectly the day before, was not functioning. So now on top of hurricane prep, we were now enacting a separate emergency response for temporary storage of the most critical organic materials while we had the cooler serviced. Thankfully, it was back up and running by the end of the day!
Nothing ever goes completely according to plan, and we certainly had a lot of surprise complexities on that day. However, because every contract has a designated project manager, and because everyone had a specific set of tasks and responsibilities to complete, the workload was well divided amongst the team, and communication was clear. I communicated with the team as developments were unfolding, and everyone was on the same page internally at WLCC from top to bottom of our organizational structure. We stuck to the “big picture” strategies of moving collection materials away from external walls and ensuring that they were elevated and covered with plastic to protect against leaks and drips. In some cases, more sensitive objects on our priority list had to be moved elsewhere in the building. We made sure to update all inventories as these moves were happening, since these inventories are our reference for object locations in the event of a disaster. Finally, we shored up our facilities with sandbags, and critical equipment was powered down and covered with plastic.
The WLCC team absolutely knocked it out of the park! They got straight to work and once they completed their tasks, they jumped in to help others where needed which was especially important with some of the larger, more complex projects. I definitely overestimated how much time I would have to complete my own set of tasks and was the last one (by far) to finish my list. Between the equipment failure, communicating with the WLCC team, and notifying clients and local AFR partners, I almost forgot that I had my own set of tasks to complete!
Early communication was critical for us. And not just before Hurricane Ian, but having that conversation that started with every loan or contract, and a conversation that was updated and renewed at the start of every hurricane season.
Anything is better than nothing! Big picture measures have the greatest impact and are the easiest to enact. Although I reminded myself of this on repeat, I still walked out of our building feeling like I had not done enough. I imagine that's an ever-present feeling regardless of how many storms you weather alongside your collections.
Could you speak about what that experience was like for you personally?
It was a very emotionally draining day. I’m from Florida, so I was in communication with friends and family throughout the day while also preparing for impacts in Charleston. This is why we prepare our workplaces early. Thankfully, I had the next day off to focus on family and my own personal hurricane arrangements. I’m pretty sure I went home that day, ate Halloween candy for dinner and was asleep by 8:30!
Did you feel that expectations or resources were perhaps too optimistic for the realities of implementing an evacuation? Or rather, did you feel that your institution’s expectations aligned well with actual needs when it came time to implement?
We are on a satellite campus of Clemson University, so we were in campus emergency management meetings leading up to the storm, and they follow the closures of local counties where the satellite campuses are located. Ultimately, the short notice we had before closure is not practical for our facility and operations. However, this storm was always a weird one, and we didn’t know where it would impact on a second landfall (if at all) until the final hours.
As a team, we are very practical and remained focus on the big picture. We’ve really worked to increase communication regarding prep and response over the last couple of years at WLCC, and I feel that really showed. Communication with the team started early, and expectations were clear prior to the word “go.”
With increasing hurricane risk on the East coast and other threats posed by climate change, have you seen cultural heritage emergency preparedness efforts evolve to respond to these risks?
Absolutely! The Lowcountry has endured big storms in the past, but we are also faced with tidal “sunny day” flooding as the impacts of coastal erosion and sea level rise from climate change become more severe. We are quite literally surrounded by water and are keenly aware of its impacts, particularly on the cultural landscapes of historic communities in low-lying areas such as the Gullah Geechee.
WLCC actually just launched the Lowcountry Alliance for Response (LAFR) network in June of this year in partnership with FAIC and our wonderful planning committee (Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, Drayton Hall Preservation Trust, Historic Charleston Foundation, South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston Library Society, Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, and the City of Charleston Emergency Management Department). We were all in communication before and after the storm as well as with attendees of the LAFR Kick-Off Forum which had just taken place in June 2022. Additionally, more training and outreach events are in the works to provide training opportunities and local resources.
How does your organization track and document emergency events, and ensure the lessons learned from those incidents are carried forward?
We are a small team, so we tend to be more informal about the process. I like to jot down some quick notes on my phone about edits to make to our Hurricane/ Emergency Plan or things to do differently next time. I also send out an email after the event for feedback. We also have an after-action form in our emergency plan which I should be better about using!
What mitigation efforts have been added to regular procedures to reduce high winds and flood risk to your facility? (E.g. temporary flood barriers, relocation/evacuation plans for moving collections to higher ground)
In Charleston, we face tidal flooding and severe thunderstorms on a regular basis. We generally store collections with these events in mind to begin with, since they are such a regular occurrence. However, we are lucky to be positioned further north on the Charleston Peninsula, and therefore do not face the same flood risk as those further south. We are constantly re-evaluating as climate change brings more frequent and worse effects to our region.
If you enjoyed this post, check out PCN's other most recent blog, an interview with Amanda Lancaster on Caring for Alutiiq Objects.