What to Do After Disaster Strikes

If you own or manage an historic property, it is important to know where to turn for preservation assistance and guidance immediately after a disaster affects your building. Unless assessment and remedial actions are taken in a timely manner, historic and cultural resources may be unnecessarily damaged or lost.

Following a disaster, local jurisdictions will assess area damage, identify hazardous buildings, and act accordingly to protect the public welfare. Proactive preservation response is crucial to prevent any damage or further loss of historic resources through well meaning intentions or actions taken to lessen or eliminate the threat of damage to property or to lives, and the public health and safety.

A variety of public and private emergency actions that have protected historic properties in the past include the appointment of a city seismic task force that quickly reviewed damaged URMs (unreinforced masonry buildings) and finding no major problems prevented potential demolition, local preservationists concerned over hasty demolitions taking their concern to City Council and getting a resolution immediately ceasing unwarranted demolition, and planning director measures ensuring that adequate consideration would be given to historic buildings prior to any emergency demolition.

An understanding of how a sudden disaster in your area will be managed, along with being properly prepared, will greatly assist individuals, neighborhoods and communities, and governmental agencies adequately protect historic resources in a logical and efficient manner as part of the response process. It is imperative that historic preservation is given a strong and visible presence at the beginning of the response process. Implementing the strategies below will promote effective and appropriate response and protect at-risk historic resources.

Be Prepared

  • A basic understanding of applicable laws, emergency rescue operations, and public safety will provide insight into government priorities following a disaster and when, where, and how preservation issues should be raised.

  • Become familiar with the post-disaster safety evaluation of buildings and the resulting placard “tagging”. Understand and be able to explain the difference between red, yellow and green tags and what they mean to historic resources. Note! A red “Unsafe” posting is not a demolition notice.

    OES Guiding Principles of ATC-20 Rapid Assessments (“Tagging”)

Identify, Evaluate, and Document Resources

  • Obtain and/or provide and distribute Historic Designation and Register Lists. While OHP can provide state database information, it is also important to check for local qualified listings of historic properties.

  • Cross reference the list of damaged buildings with historic property lists and work with the local jurisdiction to ensure that damaged historic resources are properly identified and addressed. As local jurisdictions may be overwhelmed by the disaster it may be necessary to have recognized organizations and/or preservation consultants develop a damaged historic building list for use during the response activities. Such groups may include the local American Institute of Architects, a local preservation organization, or preservation professionals performing pro-bono work.

  • Actively work with the organization assessing damaged historic building and ensure that assessment teams have personnel qualified to assess historic character defining features and integrity. Maintain contact with local jurisdiction decisions on how damaged buildings are treated and always request second opinions when demolition is requested.

Integrate Preservation Information with General Response

  • Distribute educational information on protection, emergency treatments (i.e. stabilization, protection, salvage), repair, as well as incentives, funding, and other assistance that may be useful. Actively follow and distribute available and potential funding sources as they develop and lobby for additional legislative funds whenever possible.

  • Seek positive press coverage on the condition, assessment, and future of historic resources within the disaster area.

Use Qualified Historic Preservation Professionals

  • Identify and promote the use of historic preservation professionals and other preservation minded qualified experts to inspect damage, evaluate conditions, and provide technical advice. These professionals possess an integral understanding of older buildings and available resources and can provide valuable expertise on the latest construction and repair techniques to local jurisdictions with limited or unavailable staff. Most importantly these experts know how to keep the resource eligible and would be an invaluable resource on building evaluation teams.

  • Local governments may contact OES (the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services) for SAP (Safety Assessment Program) assistance in establishing teams who can accompany building inspectors to historic buildings for initial inspections and make more in-depth second assessment of historic buildings initially determined unsafe. At least one member of the assessment team should be a preservation architect with solid structural knowledge or a structural engineer with strong preservation experience.

Safety Assessment Program

Protect Qualified Resources

  • Avoid removing or damaging historic fabric during emergency work or any initial cleanup on or around an historic property. Dislodged historic fabric and materials should be carefully salvaged and stored in a safe location, ideally on-site.

  • If the damage to an historic resource is not a life-safety concern, take the time to properly evaluate preservation oriented options based on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. Also take the time to evaluate and select qualified consultants and/or contractors to perform clean-up and/or repair work.

The First Ten Days: Emergency Response and Protection Strategies for the Preservation of Historic Structures

AIA Disaster Assistance Program

Unified Federal Environmental and Historic Preservation Review Guide for Federal Disaster Recovery Assistance Applicants 

Distribute This Information

The following information should be ready for distribution as needed in the event of a disaster. These primers provide valuable regulatory direction and education on historic resources.

  • National Register of Historic Places Bulletin Series provides guidance on how to document, evaluate and nominate historically significant sites to the National Register. The series is divided into four sections: the Basics, Property Types, Technical Assistance, and General Guidance. All of the Bulletins and Brochures are available in electronic versions. NPS Preservation Briefs provide technical information and guidance on the care of historical buildings.

  • California Register of Historic Places is for use by state and local agencies, private groups and citizens to identify, evaluate, register and protect California's historical resources. The Register is the authoritative guide to the state's significant historical and archeological resources.

  • Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties includes the Standards and Guidelines for Preservation, Rehabilitation, Restoration, and Reconstruction.

  • Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires Federal agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties and defines how Federal agencies meet these statutory responsibilities.

  • California Historic Building Code provides alternative building standards and building regulations in permitting repairs, alterations and additions necessary for the preservation, restoration, rehabilitation, moving or continued use of an historical building or structure.

  • California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires state and local public agencies to identify the environmental impacts of proposed discretionary activities or projects, determine if the impacts will be significant, and identify alternatives and mitigation measures that will substantially reduce or eliminate significant impacts to the environment.

  • California Public Resources Code Section 5028 (Natural Disaster Damage to Historic Property) provides protection to structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places, on the California Register of Historic Places, or on any local public register of historic places, that has been damaged due to a natural disaster unless the structure presents an imminent threat to the public of bodily harm or of damage to adjacent property, or the State Office of Historic Preservation determines that the structure may be demolished, destroyed, or significantly altered.

  • National Park Service Historic Preservation Tax Incentives outlines federal tax incentives, including a 20% rehabilitation credit, for qualified historic properties.

Locally Specific Information should be prepared as part of disaster planning and be readily accessible in the event of a disaster.

  • Historic property information - Local Registers, Inventories, Surveys or Lists - should be updated regularly and readily available in the event of a disaster.  
  • Applicable local ordinances with sections pertinent to historic resources highlighted. 


Things You Can Do at the Local Level

The following outline was based on: California Preservation Foundation and the Western Regional Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Taking Effective Local Action on the Fault Line: What you can do to prevent the rush to demolish earthquake damaged historic structures, 1989.

1. Emergency Meeting(s)
Call an emergency meeting of preservationists, architects, the Preservation Commission, Landmarks Board, and other interested preservation organizations or professionals, and ask City Hall for an immediate briefing on:

  • List of buildings determined “unsafe”
  • Criteria used to make that determination
  • Decision making process for “emergency” demolitions

2. Compile List of Damaged Historic Buildings
Compare the list of “hazardous” buildings with your list of qualified historic structures (i.e. National Register, National Register eligible, or structures on any other “officially” designated list or survey) and any local historical surveys to determine which are historic. Maintain and monitor this list. For situations that are not life-threatening, ask your local jurisdiction for a policy of caution in regard to the demolition of any historic building. This policy should include provisions to:

  • Secure and cordon off a building determined hazardous after an initial inspection by building officials.
  • Allow a second inspection and opinion by a structural engineer with experience in seismic safety of historic buildings, along with the participation of preservationists.
  • Prevent any immediate demolition until there is a proven need and demonstration of no feasible alternative.

3. Coordinate efforts
Schedule meetings as necessary between local, state, and national preservation organizations, applicable jurisdictions and agencies, and the American Institute of Architects and other professional organizations to exchange information, plot strategy, assemble technical assistance teams, distribute information, and coordinate efforts to ensure work isn’t being duplicated!

4. Seek Positive Press Coverage

  • Focus on undamaged buildings and preservation successes
  • Highlight any technical assistance assembled with the help of local structural engineers, preservation architects, local preservationists, and expertise from other organizations and agencies.
  • Give examples of cautious city policy and preservation successes elsewhere in the face of similar emergencies.
  • Urge caution on the part of local building officials in “emergency” demolitions.

5. Distribute Information
Get information on technical and financial assistance and local access to this assistance out to your community as well as the local city government and the press.

Look into federal, state, and local funding mechanisms and incentive programs such as the Marks Historic Rehabilitation Bond Act of 1976 which might provide a way to create a loan fund, the Mills Act program which in reducing the property tax on an historic structure may provide an inducement for property owners to preserve and rehabilitate instead of demolish a damaged building, easements, tax credits, and any local assistance that may become available during the response and recovery time.

6. Establish Emergency Fund
Investigate opportunities for the establishment of an emergency fund earmarked for historic buildings through a local bank or civic club.

7. Legal Action
When you get very little cooperation from local officials you may have to be prepared to go to court. If you seek an injunction to forestall a “public safety” demolition, be sure that you take a structural engineer with the necessary expert testimony ready to refute claims that an emergency exists.