By Roberta Lane and Shaw Sprague
Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in so many lives, and some in its path are still living without basic services. On top of so much personal loss, the mark the storm left on long-established communities is shocking, and also takes a great toll on those affected. Repair and restoration is underway at homes, but also at religious structures, downtowns, parks, historic sites, and beyond, demonstrating our resilience and the importance of place in people’s lives.
The National Trust is working on many fronts to try to provide assistance to those who are dealing with damage. There is a high concentration of older and historic properties in the affected states, and a real need for information on repair of these beloved places. The damage is widespread and has affected all types of historic resources, from dire flooding at the South Street Seaport maritime museum and damage at Green-Wood Cemetery in NYC, to destruction at Atlantic City’s boardwalk and historic downtown.
In addition to our work to help eligible sites through use of our grant funds, we are providing comprehensive and user-friendly guidance through Preservationnation.org, our field offices, and the Forum Reference Desk. We’re tracking reports of damage to historic sites, local landmarks, and older downtown areas, and coordinating with our preservation networks to evaluate the scope and nature of the destruction. Our deep experience with federal emergency management protocol and preservation law is proving useful as mandated preservation reviews proceed.
The damage at one of our National Treasures, Ellis Island, provides a snapshot of one kind of post-Sandy reality. Ellis Island stands for a complex and wonderful American ideal: that we should garner the benefits of major change through immigration, while always ensuring our nation’s fundamental stability and constancy. This concept of well-managed change is also, of course, a value at the heart of historic preservation.
Our National Treasure and America’s 11 Most Endangered Places listings for Ellis Island focused on the 30 vacant buildings on the island. These buildings have stood the test of time while they wait for a reuse. We were already concerned about their condition, though, so the early reports that the stormwaters surged right over the island were extremely distressing.
We’ve met with the National Park Service and Save Ellis Island to learn about the post-storm conditions, and to coordinate our assistance. One vacant building—the Ferry Building—was restored a few years ago by the National Park Service and Save Ellis Island. The storm blew out windows and doors at the Ferry Building and inundated the exhibits and interiors inside. At the vacant US Public Health Service buildings, boarding meant to protect windows was blown out and water got into the lower areas. The grand Main Building had basement flooding, destroying the island’s mechanical systems and most other parts of its infrastructure. The grand Immigration Hall and most exhibits at the Main Building were unaffected.
The National Park Service is finishing its assessments and stabilization of the many units of the National Parks of New York Harbor that were damaged in the storm. We plan to work with our partners to connect preservation professionals from the field with the Park Service’s experts, as needed. And we are building a broad coalition of agencies and organizations to help support the work ahead.
Federal Advocacy Efforts
The National Trust is also working with our partners to advocate in Congress for emergency federal preservation funding and incentives. Specifically, we are working with the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers and Preservation Action to develop a disaster assistance proposal that outlines how increased support for federal historic preservation programs will help rebuild affected communities and preserve our nation’s heritage in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Federal resources are needed to begin to address the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, and members of Congress are working hard to assemble disaster relief legislation to assist with the recovery. Lawmakers are gathering information detailing the scope of the devastation from the storm—a complicated process which by some estimates could place the total economic damage at nearly $50 billion.*
Together with our preservation partners, the National Trust is contacting House and Senate members from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island to establish a dialogue about the importance of preserving and rebuilding our historic resources as part of a larger disaster assistance package. The proposal to increase federal resources to assist with the repair and preservation of historic assets is modeled after similar legislation enacted by Congress to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
These provisions include:
- $40 million in grants available through the Historic Preservation Fund
- An increase in the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit for historic structures from 20 percent to 26 percent
- An increase in the "non-historic" tax credit for older buildings from 10 percent to 13 percent
Based upon our experience with Hurricane Katrina, we are seeking these additional provisions:
- Reduction in the Substantial Rehabilitation Test
- Specific waivers to recapture provisions and basis calculations
*Estimate provided by EQECAT, Inc. EQECAT is a catastrophe risk modeling firm that provides products and services to the global property and casualty insurance, reinsurance, and financial markets.
Roberta Lane is a Senior Field Officer and Regional Attorney and Shaw Sprague is Associate Director for Government Relations and Policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.