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The National Park Service and Its Partners Taking Action in the Gulf Coast and Around the County  

12-09-2015 17:35

Let me begin with my own heartfelt sympathy for the victims of the storms that have so recently swept through the South. Above all, the personal tragedies of our fellow citizens require our support and our understanding. I spent much my life in Florida and have seen the power of these storms first hand—but nothing that matches the scale of damage that has just struck some of our most treasured historic places.

From southeastern Louisiana to Mobile Bay, Hurricane Katrina damaged some of the historic legacy of more than 300 years of American history. The Gulf Coast has long been recognized for its unique blend of French Creole, Anglo-American, and African-American cultures, and the Creole influences that predominated during the 18th and 19th centuries played a central role in creating some of the most distinctive architecture in North America.

While it likely will be months before the full extent of the damage is known, it is clear that the storm took a heavy toll on the heritage and historic fabric of the Gulf Coast. There is a little bit of good news, however: The most historic parts of New Orleans, especially the famed French Quarter and nearby Garden District, escaped largely unscathed.

The National Park Service is working on restoring much of the impacted areas, including many sites listed in the National Register. In neighborhoods such as the Esplanade Ridge Historic District, which encompasses nearly 1,500 examples of Creole style domestic architecture, there was extensive flooding. The Creole cottages, shotgun houses, and raised villa-style residences found in Esplanade Ridge and throughout the city are mainly wood-frame structures built on piers, which are especially susceptible to water infiltration.

Flooding also damaged sites such as Congo Square, also a site of great interest to the National Park Service and the preservation community. Congo Square was historically the main gathering place for free and enslaved blacks. Even before the Civil War, African- Americans gathered here to keep alive their African heritage through dance, music, handicrafts, and to socialize. Restoring this site is one of our priorities. Dillard University, a historically black institution with elegant Classical Revival–style buildings, in the past has received NPS preservation grant funding. This site also was struck by wind damage and flooding.

The museum collections of Jean Lafitte and New Orleans Jazz national parks were held in a building that, thankfully, was spared. We have moved their museum collections temporarily to Natchez, Miss., because essential climate control will not be possible for some weeks—until utility services are restored. On the ground, Chalmette Battlefield, site of the famous Battle of New Orleans, was pretty badly damaged also. But we are confident much of the landscape will recover, given time. Artillery pieces have been removed from the battlefield and sent to Springfield Armory National Historic Site in Massachusetts for whatever maintenance or repair proves needed. The Chalmette National Cemetery suffered some damage from uprooted trees, which exposed cultural artifacts, including human remains. These have been placed in appropriate storage until they can be suitably returned.

In Mississippi, the museum at the Gulf Islands National Seashore was heavily damaged, so we have moved most of the collection to our Southeast Archeological Center for recovery or Timucuan Preserve in Jacksonville for storage. Sadly, of course, the Florida end of the Gulf Islands is still recovering from last year’s devastating hurricanes, so the same facilities are already housing collections from those events. We can rebuild where we have good records of what was there. We have good photographs and plans and other drawings of many of the places that we care about. We will be able to pass on this record of lives and achievements to posterity, even after a destructive event like Hurricane Katrina.

The Historic American Buildings Survey and Historic American Engineering Record have documentation on more than 800 sites in the Gulf Coast areas affected by Katrina. Following Hurricane Katrina, staff in the cultural resources programs of the National Park Service have responded with guidance on recovery and stabilization of sites, structures, and objects in the impacted areas. We have provided extensive site documentation, technical information, and training; developed new tools specifically to meet the needs of the states; and provided limited onsite assistance.

Hurricane Rita was less powerful than Katrina and less harmful to park resources; however, again, some National Register properties have been affected—especially in the region surrounding Port Arthur, Tex., and Lake Charles, La. The NPS parks suffered downed trees, lost utility services, and minor building damage to public-use facilities in Big Thicket National Preserve, Cane River Creole National Historical Park, and even Vicksburg National Military Park.

We have long talked of the value of strong partnerships. It is these types of crises that test the strength of these partnerships. And they are holding strong! We are very proud of what we have been able to do in the wake of Katrina and Rita, but we’ve learned valuable lessons of what we and others can do differently—and better. We remain concerned that singular resources be saved, wherever it makes sense, in the aftermath of an event like this. Part of our job is to teach those who must be focused on short-term solutions to massive problems, so that they recognize that preservation makes sense!

Other Important Work of NPS and Its Partners

In late September we testified in support of re-authorizing the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the Historic Preservation Fund. Let me just take a minute to say we want both back, and stronger than ever! We are working closely with the ACHP on a number of important initiatives, including the Preserve America program and compliance tools. We value that partnership.

Also on a positive note, over the years, the Historic Preservation Fund has been a highly flexible authority for developing targeted grant programs that address the broad purposes of the National Historic Preservation Act. They include the grants to Indian tribes to support Tribal Historic Preservation Offices and project grants to preserve America’s native cultures; grants to Historically Black Colleges and Universities to preserve significant campus buildings; the Save America’s Treasures grant program for threatened nationally significant properties; and more recently, the Preserve America grant program for heritage tourism, including education and economic revitalization.

These grant programs not only preserve historic resources, they attract new economic investment. We have asked Congress to renew the fund for another 10 years.

We also take great pride in our recognition programs. Our highest recognition standard remains the National Historic Landmark. Earlier this month, the National Park System Advisory Board recommended National Historic Landmark designation for 13 properties. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton has already acted to approve the first of that group—the Kam Wah Chung & Co. building in John Day, Ore. The building is important for its association with Chinese immigrants in the development of the American West, when the Chinese came to the West to work in mining, on the railroads, in the lumber industry, in the construction of wagon roads, and in agricultural jobs. It is one of the finest representatives of the Chinese role in the post–Civil War expansion period of the American West and the sole remainder of the town’s once-thriving Chinese community.

Through the work of our partners in the states, we can cite significant achievements over the past year: The National Park Service approved 1,537 new listings, which include 46,619 properties, in the National Register of Historic Places. The Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program resulted in the rehabilitation of more than 1,200 historic properties listed in the National Register, creating some 15,000 new housing units, and generating $3.8 billion in leveraged private investment.

In FY 2005, the Save America’s Treasures grant program awarded a total of 145 matching grants in 43 states and the District of Columbia totaling $29.5 million. Our partners in the program are the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

We—the National Trust, the Advisory Council, and the Park Service—can provide guidance, inspiration, and even some financial stimulus. But the day-to-day work of identifying needs, conceiving solutions, and rallying essential support for special projects, structures, and events is a task we share with those who care—the deeply dedicated grassroots workers in cities and towns across America.

We’re fortunate to have so many partners already active in historic preservation. Now, more than ever, we must convert the passion to action…and the possibilities to realities.

NPS Response to 2005 Hurricanes
Updated November 22, 2005

National Park Service employees continue to feel the effects of the hurricane season well into November as they try to restore a sense of normalcy to their lives and those affected by these devastating hurricanes. Many employees still are working from temporary buildings and office spaces and are dealing with lost homes and property. Contractors are working to stabilize buildings and repair roofs on government structures. Recreational opportunities have been canceled or reduced to accommodate the loss of management facilities and staff. Many parks that had already experienced difficult budget projections are now scrambling to reassess important priorities and decide what buildings can be repaired, replaced, or left as is.

Under the National Response Plan, the Department of the Interior is the lead agency for the Natural and Cultural Resources and Historic Properties Protection part of Emergency Support Function #11. Following Hurricane Katrina, the National Park Service cultural resources programs responded by providing documentation, technical information, and assistance services in collaboration with other federal and nonfederal partners. The Park Service rapidly designed detailed building and site condition assessment forms, posted data on the internet concerning National Register listings in the impacted areas, provided maps of impacted National Register historic districts, and data on individually listed sites to the Mississippi and Louisiana state historic preservation offices. This information helped to facilitate decisions regarding preservation and protection of districts from immediate demolition. Park Service cultural resources employees provided training to 110 professionals in the impacted areas, established a website to provide technical information on recovery and preservation of cultural resources ( katrina), and worked with Louisiana Public Broadcasting to air a public service announcement about the preservation of cultural heritage. Park Service teams assisted affected parks and more than 80 cultural resources employees volunteered their services and stand ready to respond to FEMA requests for assistance. To date, 16 National Park Service cultural resources employees help make up two federal teams assigned to assist FEMA at headquarters and the Louisiana and Mississippi Joint Field Offices. In addition, three Park Service planners are helping FEMA address local community long-term recovery planning issues in Mississippi.

Publication Date: Winter 2006


Author(s):Fran P. Mainella

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