by Hannah Wetter, Rutgers University Geography and Visual Arts Major

Today is Earth Day, a time designated to show support for environmental protection. One of the most pressing issues affecting the Earth today is the climate crisis and its consequences, including frequent flooding. Increased flooding impacts both natural and historical sites. Let’s find out how those caring for some significant historic sites that experience flooding have found creative solutions to combat climate change.

The city of New Orleans is host to a fantastic array of important historical sites. With 20National Register Districts and a plethora of historic landmarks, New Orleans is one of the country’s most historic cities. When the levees failed during catastrophic Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans in 2005, it created an unprecedented crisis both for the people of New Orleans and their cultural resources. After the Federal Emergency Management Agency was called in to protect life and property, it needed to evaluate the city’s historical resources’ damage. However, the data on the city’s historic resources was out-of-date and incomplete. The solution for this was to use GPS and GIS mapping technologies to assess the damage, historical significance, and coordinate rehabilitation strategies for the historic buildings. The use of these technologies was very successful, quickening the recovery process, lessening historical site demolitions, and cataloguing more than 50,000 locations. FEMA’s response to this disaster is an ACHP Section 106 Success Story.

As hurricanes become more frequent and destructive in future years, the technological solutions used in the disaster recovery of New Orleans will become even more critical. Using GIS and GPS technology to rehabilitate important pieces of rich history is vital to preserving historic sites against environmental hazards.

A second historic site that has used innovative strategies to combat flooding waters is the Farnsworth House in Illinois, designed in 1946 by architect Mies van der Rohe, and a National Historic Landmark recognized for its International Style of architecture. The elegant steel and glass house sits near the Fox River bank and is notable for the artistic relationship between the building, river, and land. Because of suburban development, storm water runoff, and rising water levels, flooding has repeatedly threatened the house. An advisory council was formed to figure out how to prevent floodwaters from ruining the beautiful site. Together, they have determined three different possible ways of managing the floods:

Elevating the house in-place

Relocating the house

Or, an innovative way of hydraulically lifting the house

To maintain the house’s aesthetics, the council has proposed installing a hydraulic lift system of invisible waterproof trusses. This way, the house can maintain both its ethereal structure and its setting within the natural landscape. With these experts’ effort and the state of Illinois, essential pieces of rich history like the Farnsworth House can be protected and serve as an example of working with the floodwaters.

There are numerous examples of inventive solutions and precautions for flooding damage. The new “Guidelines on Flood Adaptation for Rehabilitating Historic Buildingspublished by Jenifer Eggleston, Jennifer Parker, and Jennifer Wellock of  the National Park Service focuses on making historic properties more resilient to flooding hazards.

Just as an increased number of historic sites face the risk of flooding, there are many dedicated people ready to protect the cultural heritage of the land. Happy Earth Day!

For more on the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s work on resiliency, go to Sustainability and Climate Resilience.