Hurricane Sandy hit New York City on the 29th of October, 2012, leading to mass blackouts and flooding in Brooklyn and most of lower Manhattan.
Kate’s apartment was within the yellow zone “B” in the map above which indicated optional evacuation. She stayed the city for a few days while the power, water, and heat were out, but then escaped to stay with friends in New Haven, Connecticut, which had not gotten hit by the hurricane.
Our classmates living on the Upper West Side and in Queens and Brooklyn were mostly unaffected by the power-outages, but as all public transportation was suspended during and after the storm, everyone had a hard time getting anywhere for a week afterwards.
School was cancelled for a week, and we missed a few classes while everyone recovered. Even though many of our professors were still without power or heat, they were supportive of everyone in our community and very generous with their time in class.
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But the real subject of this posting is the disaster that Sandy has brought upon the art and art conservation worlds.
While we at the Conservation Center were mostly lucky–our buildings surviving unscathed–we are all very aware that much of the city was not so fortunate. Among the areas that were particularly hard-hit was Chelsea, home to many of the city’s art galleries and artist studios. Entire collections were submerged or waterlogged, with plagues of mold and flood-water stains following.
On Sunday, November 4, several students and faculty members, including Michelle Marincola (Director of the Conservation Center) and Peggy Ellis (Eugene Thaw Professor of Paper Conservation) attended one of two sessions of the Consortium on Recovery of Works of Art Damaged by Flooding at the Museum of Modern Art, held by the AIC Collections Emergency Response Teams (CERT).
The Consortium is serving as a forum through which conservators can guide recovery efforts across New York City. The hall was filled to the brim with museum, gallery, and conservation professionals and artists who were still reeling from the disaster they had witnessed.
Lisa Elkin, Director of Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), started off the meeting by reminding attendees of the resources open to them, not the least of which were the conservation professionals in attendance.
Kala Harinarayanan, Director of Environmental Health and Safety at the AMNH, then reminded those present that, however concerned we may be for collections, our health and safety must remain of paramount importance. As surge waters could contain all kinds of hazardous materials, and buildings may have become unstable after the storm, it is essential that we remain cautious and prepared. She advised having a companion when re-entering a disaster site, using communication devices, and using personal protective equipment, such as a snug-fitting face mask or respirator suitable for mold-spore filtration.
At this point in the meeting, Beth Nunan, Associate Conservator at the AMNH took over. She covered the nuts and bolts of actually running a successful recovery, stressing the importance of planning prior to beginning the recovery effort. She reminded everyone that documentation was key – not just of the damage to the site and objects, but also of the priorities, and the logical work-flow appropriate to the recovery effort. Beth also discussed ways to triage damaged objects: These could include business records that would be critical to the continued functioning of a business or cultural entity.
Caitlin O’Grady, Conservation Fellow at the University of Delaware, concluded the session by discussing various recovery techniques and their suitability to different scenarios. She took us through the merits and drawbacks of freezing versus air drying material, and discussing issues of mold mitigation and treatment. AIC-CERT’s entire presentation can be viewed here.
At the end of the various presentations, we adjourned to a separate room to discuss more specific problems faced by those in the audience. It was at this moment when we realized the true magnitude of the problem, but it was also when those from the Conservation Center could be of the most use. Gallery owners asked questions about everything from dealing with insurance companies to whether or not to freeze their objects. Artists asked about the best ways to dry out their canvases. And the conservators were able to help people with these variety of concerns directly. As I left, Peggy Ellis was deep in conversation about the recovery of damaged works on paper.
The Consortium served as a gateway to involvement with recovery efforts throughout New York, as attendees had the chance to sign up to volunteer their conservation services.
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Ever since the hurricane, the conservation staff and students have been hard at work doing their part to help in the recovery. On November 6, a group of students, led by Judith Praska Distinguished Visiting Professor Christine Frohnert, spent the day at Eyebeam, a nonprofit art and technology center established in 1997. [See Eyebeam's emergency appeal on their homepage or donate to help in their recovery efforts.]
The facility was flooded during the storm, resulting in the loss of audio-visual equipment and cables, as well as damage to a large collection of audio-visual works. Over the course of the day, we mostly conducted condition assessments and produced documentation of optical media – CDs and DVDs. There was a sharp learning curve for those of us who, like me, had little to no experience with digital media conservation. We learned to tell the difference between a CD, CD-R, DVD, and DVD-R and got a first-hand experience of discs with damaged data, where surge waters had seeped between the different layers of the discs and left behind various salts.
We realized that our new skills, even at such a minimal level of experience, can still help. And in the face of such a tragedy, we are glad to be able to volunteer.