POSTED ON JANUARY 19, 2011:
Into Thy Hands
City commends its spirit and culture to FEMA's advice. Historic Disaster Response Team puts religious fervor to preservation tactics, just in case . . .
Disaster Masters. A team of 15-20 representing museums, libraries and local landmarks is training to save irreplaceable artifacts during emergencies.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency long recommended that communities across the country develop a hazard mitigation plan for their local arts, cultural and historical resources as part of their overall disaster response.
But until Tulsa stepped forward, no one had taken that advice to heart, said Ron Van Voorhis, security supervisor at the Philbrook Museum of Art.
Van Voorhis serves as the leader of the Historic Disaster Response Team, a group comprised of representatives of local museums, libraries, and other cultural and historic properties. The team was formed to implement the recommendations that arose from the creation of the hazard mitigation plan developed last year and recently approved by FEMA.
"We were able to identify our strengths, weaknesses and needs, but also what we needed to do to fill the holes," he said of the process that began in November 2008. "We started building a list of what we had in the county. With that, we were able to go from archaeological sites to historic neighborhoods ready to move on to the national register. We went as far back as you can go to the near future."
Now, other communities across the country are following Tulsa's lead. Van Voorhis said he wasn't sure if the plan Tulsa has developed and is implementing will serve as an example for other cities, but he's certain that everyone is pursuing the same goal -- not just to protect those arts, cultural and historic treasures from the ravages of such disasters as floods, storms or fires, but to reduce or even eliminate the period of time it takes to recover from natural or man-made disasters.
"Get over it as fast as we can and get back into operation as fast as we can so there is minimal disruption to our partners and to us for our bottom line," Van Voorhis said, describing his team's approach.
The danger in failing to plan for such an eventuality, he said, is obvious.
"Can we imagine losing our Art Deco downtown?" he asked. "Can we imagine losing our treasures scattered from the Air and Space Museum to the Sherwin Miller Museum? Could we imagine losing the Maplewood neighborhood?"
The Historic Disaster Response Team has between 15 and 20 members who represent a cross section of Tulsa's arts, cultural and historic gems. The city received a federal grant two years ago to put together a plan to save those treasures.
Ron Flanagan of R.D. Flanagan & Associates, the Tulsa-based firm hired to create the plan, has credited Tim Lovell -- executive director of Tulsa Partners Inc., a nonprofit firm subcontracted to work on the issue -- with initiating the idea for the project.
Lovell said Van Voorhis and his team have been focused on providing hazard mitigation training for representatives of the facilities and properties they are involved with, as well as coordinating the hazard mitigation efforts between the various entities. He said there is even an effort underway to integrate the work those entities have done into the broader emergency management system.
Flanagan -- whose firm also has developed hazard mitigation plans for Tulsa County, the city of Tulsa and Tulsa Public Schools in recent years -- was glad to see the Historic Disaster Response Team pick up where he, as a consultant, left off.
"They didn't want to leave this here in limbo," he said. "They said, 'We ought to have a group that works on this and implements suggestions the plan developed.'"
Lovell said that one interesting question that has emerged from the project pertains specifically to such institutions as the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa and the library at Oklahoma State University's Tulsa campus: how do they protect archival documents during a disaster in a way that doesn't damage them?
"As we talked to these folks, there seemed to be a need for additional research as to what's out there," he said.
Van Voorhis, a veteran of emergency response efforts for the last 40 years who has worked on disasters ranging from the 1984 Mannford tornado to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, said the No. 1 rule of disaster preparation -- for an art museum or any other entity -- is to think about "What if?"
"It's always easier to take care of that 'what if?' when you're not in the middle of it," he said.
One of the first priorities of his team was to establish a list of priorities for saving Tulsa's arts, cultural and historical treasures.
"Would the books in a local library be as high a priority as the artwork in our museums?" he asked. "They're valuable, but we can replace those books."
Another focus was making sure the representatives of all the participating entities had a realistic idea of what to expect, should the worst happen.
"The perception was the fire department could help us out," Van Voorhis said, adding that the manpower demands a major disaster would place on firefighters most likely would preclude that possibility.
"Everybody thinks this is glamorous, but it's just knowing what the right phone number is sometimes," he said, describing the mundane nature of much of the work. "We didn't invent the wheel, we just put all the parts together."
He said a major part of his team's work has been simply to collect the emergency management expertise that exists within the local arts/cultural/historical community and incorporate it into a collaborative effort.
That kind of cooperation will be crucial, should those entities experience a major disaster, he said. Smaller entities do not have access to the same kind of resources that larger entities do to protect themselves, but they can make good use of the experience and resources that are out there.
"It's neighbor helping neighbor," Van Voorhis said. "The Gilcrease and Philbrook have large staffs and good expertise. They can help themselves, but can also help their neighbors."
The result of all that work, he said, is that Tulsa's arts, cultural and historical entities are much better off in their disaster preparation than they were two years ago, though most of those organizations already had developed their own plan.
"If nothing else, it's because we're all working together, and strengthening and improving our response and recovery abilities," he said. "We're fortunate. Tulsa was strong to start with. Tulsa's been strong in this part of the business for 40 years now, so it was only logical for us to go ahead and take that to the next step. There was not a single participant who did not come with a plan. All we did was take a look at them and try to make them stronger."
But all that preparation won't mean a thing if people neglect to stick to it, he said.
"You can tell us how to make a plan, and you can ask us to make a plan, but if you don't use the plan, it's just a book on a shelf," he said.
Van Voorhis emphasized that the disaster mitigation plan that has been put together is not designed to usurp the authority of the director of any of its participating entities.
"It is designed to enhance their abilities," he said. "The director will call the shots for his museum, yet all the help he needs is right there at his fingertips. What more could we ask for?"
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