Disasters in New Jersey can take many forms – fire, derailments, leaks – but usually the most prolific, widespread and damaging are the result of weather: snowstorms, rain storms, straight-line winds, hurricanes and an occasional tornado. According to Environment New Jersey, since 2007 every county has experienced at least four weather-related disasters; Atlantic County the most with nine.
The one-two punch of Hurricane Irene and the Halloween snowstorm of 2011 snarled the state for weeks and served as a wake-up for all agencies, especially those concerned with protecting valuable papers, collections and artifacts. One year later, with even greater destructive force, Hurricane Sandy brought to the forefront the need for agencies to collaborate, coordinate, share information and best practices, provide resources and plan strategies together.
Another thing those three extreme weather events showed was the importance of libraries in the communities; they were the places people without power, heat and water went to cope with the days, sometimes weeks of recovery. This new role elicited a response from the New Jersey State Library (NJSL) to ensure librarians were adequately trained to respond to future emergencies, and what steps they needed to take to preserve their valuable collections.
Some had hired Fire Watch Officers and were prepared before Hurricane Sandy thanks to a 10-week training project in Atlantic and Cape May counties taught by Tom Clareson, senior consultant for Digital & Preservation Services at LYRASIS, the nation’s largest library and cultural heritage network, and funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities Preservation and Access grant. “In light of the disasters that have occurred over the past decade, the New Jersey State Library has been much attuned to the value of collaboration and preparation. We have pursued grant opportunities and partnerships to strengthen infrastructure and networks,” said Mary Chute, New Jersey State Librarian. “We are pleased to be an integral part of this effort, and anticipate great benefit, not just to the cultural heritage community, but to the all the people and organizations of our state.”
The State Library took that training statewide with the first “Ports in a Storm” Summit in April 2013, bringing together emergency planning experts, librarians, first responders, public health workers, community and faith-based groups to build community partnerships and to provide a forum for discussing roles libraries and information professionals can play in supporting future disaster preparedness, response and recovery efforts. The NJ Collections Care Consortium (C3NJ), which includes all of the state’s cultural institutions, collaborated on a two-year disaster preparedness initiative funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
In addition, several groundbreaking meetings occurred with the NJ Office of Emergency Management (NJOEM), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the NJ State Library, NJ State Museum, NJ State Arts Council, NJ State Archives, NJ Historical Commission and the State Office of Preservation, which led to the creation of the NJ Cultural Alliance for Response (NJCAR).
“New Jersey’s Cultural Alliance for Response is progressing more quickly, and with greater buy-in from key emergency management and cultural heritage stakeholders, than many of the other Alliance for Response groups I have worked with around the country,” said Clareson “I look forward to continuing to work with NJCAR to provide information, education, and assistance on disaster planning and recovery to New Jersey’s cultural community.”
The collaboration created a firm bond between all the agencies, resulting in the creation of a Statewide Preparedness Network, a tour of the NJ State Police Regional Operations and Intelligence Center, Trenton, and meetings at the FEMA Sandy Recovery Office and the State Library. Future plans include regional workshops in disaster planning, an Incident Command System, social media for disaster response and hands-on disaster recovery training for cultural materials.
“I am delighted that the New Jersey partnership is blossoming into an energized and committed network,” said Lori Foley, vice president of Emergency Programs at Heritage Preservation. “The dialogue that has begun between the cultural community and the emergency management community is vital for the protection of cultural resources and historic properties. By approaching emergency planning from both the local level up and the state level down, New Jersey’s many cultural organizations will reap immense benefits.”
The continuing dialogue has created awareness on the part of the cultural community about the responsibilities and overriding mission of NJOEM; how the cultural community can utilize the knowledge and experience of emergency responders; and what NJOEM and responders can do to protect and salvage irreplaceable artifacts and historical collections so important to the state and municipalities.
“While it’s true that the state’s leading cultural institutions may hold the most valuable cultural treasures, to a small town the thing that is most precious is their local history,” said Michele Stricker, NJSL associate director for Library Support Services. “These unique collections are held in small libraries, archives, museums and historical societies, and showcase a community’s history, its identity and represent its future. As personnel at our cultural institutions become more knowledgeable about prevention, protection and preservation, fewer important artifacts and documents will be lost to the ravages of disastrous events.”
To see more photos go to the State Library Flickr site: https://www.flickr.com/photos/njlibraryevents/sets/72157647849983883/