It was raining, and flooded, in historic Annapolis, Maryland, when 265 of us gathered for the second Keeping History Above Water conference. The swag was an umbrella!  It had the logo “Weather it Together,” referencing the sea level rise planning program of the City of Annapolis, and the camaraderie of conference-goers — heritage professionals and their partners — puzzling out how to solve the climate-related problems of river and surface flooding and sea level rise, and their threats to tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

Those who attended both this conference and the first one held eighteen months ago in Newport, Rhode Island, were impressed by the sector’s significant growth in understanding and experience in the interim. This is due to collaboration not only across, but also among domains: urban planning, coastal and ocean science, climate science, preservation, civil engineering, and policy developers.

Here are some take-aways for the AASLH audience.

  • When you or a preservation planner assess your neighborhood and building for disaster mitigation, one focus is “flood-and wind-prone projections” such as: anything at basement level (paving, boot scrapers, mid-block alleys, gates and fences) and exposed parts, such as signs, porch covers, and chimneys. The idea is to document what is at risk, for replacement in kind, if necessary, and to incorporate advantage or opportunity into planning and preparation. This process will help you understand if water-filled booms or mechanical barriers better suit your flood protection needs (the flexible, water-filled booms fill in the gaps of uneven brickwork, while mechanical set-ups work best on flat concrete sidewalks or parking areas).
  • Beware of “compound flooding.” That’s when rainfall combined with “coastal blow-in” creates flooding for two reasons: seas being driven toward land come up through storm sewers not equipped with backflow preventers; or because stormwater cannot exit the system because the outflows are under water themselves. Do you know where your storm sewers are and if they can back up into your area? Whether you live by the coast, a lake, a river, or nothing at all, you need to know where they go and how well they work. Contact your municipality to begin protecting your site.
  • The City of Portsmouth’s planning department knows the rate of groundwater impacts on infrastructure during a storm – just three minutes can affect road access. That means traffic for business, visitors, and workers – and emergency personnel. Much of the city is built on fill which is hardly a barrier for river or sea water seeking its level. Is your port town built on fill, too?
  • Your economic development agency may support your planning and mitigation work, or the state may be about to embark on its federally-mandated five-year update of its hazard mitigation plan. Take these opportunities to participate in the public disaster-planning process. It is important for your historic structure to be part of your local hazard mitigation plan, and for your state’s hazard mitigation plan to include cultural and historic resources. With these sorts of connections, you are far more likely to benefit from disaster-related federal funding. Find out now where the planning process is in its schedule, and if your organization is considered in the current plan.

Standing water in Annapolis. Where is it coming from?

Storm drain without a backflow preventer is the culprit.

During the conference, Nell Ziehl, the Chief of Planning, Education and Outreach for the Maryland Historical Trust, highlighted our field’s unique value in the planning process: “Our field is so well-suited to help people process this difficult situation and make creative decisions about the future. Climate change forces a laser focus on what really matters, and for many people, that means not just community, but also place. In Maryland, we have been adapting to water for centuries — this information can bring comfort, as well as design ideas based in our own traditions. Certainly, in our work with the City of Annapolis and around the state, we have seen first-hand that community engagement about the threats, realities, and opportunities of climate adaptation can turn stoic resistance into problem-solving positivity and even optimism.”

Effective planning for disasters, mitigating disasters, and recovery demand collective effort. It’s irresponsible, frankly, to plan alone. Please take the time now to work with your community to prepare. The crisis may be a devastating fire, rivers flooding, major storms in winter or summer, even chemical spills and mass evacuations. You need to know how to work together and to work with outsiders coming to help.

If your area is designated a federal disaster area, when outside agencies come to provide aid, will you or any other heritage professionals know enough about the region’s cultural heritage to incorporate its protection into the recovery response? Don’t let your sacred and historic sites suffer after the disaster as well. The area’s intangible heritage and the relationship of the land and sites within that area are as important as the structures.

As humanities professionals, educators, and preservationists, we have unique abilities to bring our communities together and to protect assets others may overlook – whether or not they’re under water.

Sarah W. Sutton is a sustainability and climate resilience consultant for cultural resources, zoos, gardens and museums.