How to Make a Case After a Disaster | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

How to Make a Case for Historic Preservation After a Disaster

How to Make a Case After a Disaster | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historic resources are always vulnerable to disasters. Wisconsin sees its share of natural disasters every year, from floods to tornadoes to blizzards. And of course fires can strike at any time.

To save threatened historic places, your historic preservation group will have to ensure historic properties are included in primary rescue and protection efforts. Use the tips below to help prevent the loss of historic resources before, during, and after the crisis phase of a disaster.

Prepare for Disasters Before they Happen

Your preservation group should use its advocacy plan to prepare for disasters that could affect historic resources.

It is easier to make a case for historic preservation during and after a disaster if you already know which affected properties are historic. 

As a part of your preparedness plan, evaluate all properties located within a flood zone. If you know that buildings in a sensitive area are historic but you have not conducted a survey and made at least preliminary determinations of eligibility, property owners may make bad decisions due to insufficient or delayed funds.

Properties that are already within historic districts or have been determined eligible for National Register listing will receive any eligible funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the state. If you are using federal or state funds following a disaster, you should coordinate your efforts with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) at the Wisconsin Historical Society. The SHPO can advise you about applicable state and federal laws on protecting historic preservation resources.

Stress the Value of Community Touchstones

When your group is making its preservation case to the community immediately after a disaster, keep the public discussion from devolving into an "either/or" argument. Stress the value of taking a long-view approach. Remind your community of the value in protecting and maintaining the key touchstones that have brought your community together over time (such as during the recent disaster). As your community rebuilds, point out that money for rehabilitation is not competing with money for other human services.

Reach Out to Your Partners

Natural disasters often present a silver lining. The need for an immediate response can produce a lot of adrenaline and ideas. It can also help your group create lasting relationships with other groups you might not have thought about before. When the going gets really tough and everyone in the community is affected, you have a great opportunity to connect with partners who provide complementary services, such as these groups:

  • Your community's planning department
  • Your local business improvement districts
  • The Main Street program
  • Charitable foundations that provide support for bricks and mortar (but not necessarily historic preservation work except in an emergency)

Reach Out to the Press

Your preservation group should be aware of public relations opportunities that might arise due to the heightened news coverage following a disaster. If your group can move quickly and make itself accessible to the media at a moment's notice, you can become the go-to group for local preservation news. Broadcast media (television, radio) and the web all provide great opportunities to get your message out to the public.

If your group has included disaster response within its advocacy plan, be sure to follow your own protocols. Immediately begin working with the community and other partners to establish the best complementary solutions. Your work with partners, including your local government, will help prevent duplicated efforts. You should articulate your group's role in the relief effortto the press and note that you are working with other groups toward a common goal.

Provide Disaster-Relief Assistance

Immediately after a community disaster, your preservation group can launch disaster-relief activities that can help your community recover and boost your group's public profile. Your members will want to help, so ask them to organize or participate in the following activities.

  • Stock your website with good information. Post news reports and photos of affected historic properties on the front page of your website. Include links that point readers to services for historic property owners. If you establish your group's website as the most trustworthy and knowledgeable source for this information, reporters will go to your website first for basic information. Even if the electricity is out and phone lines are down, your site can be accessed via smart phones.
  • Take a lot of digital photos. Designate a thorough photographer to record the damage from the disaster. You never know what will happen to weakened buildings after a disaster, and your images may become important documents for future preservation efforts. Assemble a set of comprehensive images of the affected area that can be used later to guide rehabilitation efforts.
  • Raise money to help property owners. Set up a disaster-relief fund for owners of damaged historic properties. You are unlikely to raise enough money to do a great deal of brick-and-mortar work, but you may accumulate enough to offset certain costs or fees. The gesture itself is important. If the disaster is broadly publicized, others outside your community will want to help as well. Make financial contributions as easy as possible with a texting or online giving option, or both.
  • Assemble a team of pro bono consultants and contractors. Pull together a list of experts who would like to donate their services to the recovery effort. You can coordinate this effort with other groups who might be doing the same. You may have created a short list of local skilled contractors prior to the disaster, but the event will provoke interest and support from local professionals who might not reach out to you otherwise. Depending on the scale of the disaster, you may receive help from experts who are based well outside your geographic area.
  • Help with clean up. In some situations, volunteers may be welcome to help the owners of damaged historic properties. For example, your members could help clean up by removing debris from a property.

Share Your Story

Disaster relief presents a unique opportunity for telling a story about your organization and its membership. Don't miss this opportunity by simply moving on after the worst is over. Once your community's disaster is officially history, write up a summary to document the event. Publish your write-up in your group's newsletter, post it on your website, and use it as a tool for communicating with local leaders.

Be sure to recognize the good work of individuals within your membership who may have contributed a substantial amount of time to helping others. If experts within your group provided pro bono services, spotlight their efforts in a profile story featured on your website.

Additional Resources

The following resources provide additional information about disaster recovery and response related to historic resources:

Tips to defend against the threat of disaster from the National Trust for Historic Preservation

Advice on bringing a historic structure that has been ravaged by a natural disaster back to life from the National Trust for Historic Preservation

Helpful planning advice to ensure basic preparedness and recovery measures for natural disasters from Milford Wayne Donaldson, California State Historic Preservation Officer

Helpful strategies for implementing an effective and appropriate response in order to protect at-risk historic resources from the California Office of Historic Preservation

See Disaster Response and Recovery Guides from American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works


Learn More

Find more how-to articles about historic preservation advocacy.