Public Archaeology and Disaster

Trish Markert and guest blogger Kevin Gibbons have done an excellent job exploring the physical and political implications of climate change and Michele Turner has given us a look at the American legal system and archaeology. With thanks to them for their insights, I’d like to spend a little time delving into one of the issues at the heart of archaeology and climate change: disasters.

I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise when I say that archaeologists have long been interested in disasters (Pompeii, anyone?). What many do find unexpected is that archaeology is also practiced during disasters. Any time that a community is threatened by earthquake, fire or hurricanes, their collective past – their heritage – is also threatened. Disaster management is about more than simply providing clean drinking water and a place to shelter from a storm. Some of the most important work is done when survivors return to the home passed down to them by their grandparents, or when the church where their children were baptized reopens its doors.

The ruins of Pompeii against Mount Vesuvius in the background (photo: Harshil Shah, CC BY)

Communities are created through a sense of shared belonging – whether this is through growing up in the same neighborhood, following the same football club, or developing friendships and adopting family through LGBTQ centers, that feeling of “these are my people” is what ultimately drives public archaeology and heritage resource management. Disaster management aligns with this foundation by addressing not only the most pressing physical needs of survivors for food, shelter and clean water, but in working to re-establish community ties after the unthinkable happens, and protecting the material representations of those ties through disaster management and mitigation programs.

Unfortunately, the communities that are most at risk during normal operations – poor, People of Color, or other marginalized communities – are likewise most at risk under disaster conditions. Poorly maintained housing, settlement in less desirable flood – or fire – prone areas, and other vulnerabilities means that those communities with the fewest resources to withstand a disaster inversely experience the worst impacts. In the aftermath, the destruction caused by the disaster is often used as an excuse to remove supposedly “blighted” areas, replacing public housing with luxury condos or erasing existing facilities in favor of new ones that promote gentrification and the displacement of marginalized people.

A resident of the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn attempts to bike through flood waters after Hurricane Irene in 2011. (Photo: Getty Images)

This is where public archaeologists come in to disaster management– to protect the heritage of survivors by evaluating and protecting, where appropriate, the historic properties that represent that heritage. We act as advocates for the archaeology – for the old stuff that others may find it more convenient to wipe away – but we do so for the living people to whom that archaeology belongs.

There are four phases of disaster management: response during the immediate aftermath in which human life and safety are most at risk, recovery in which a community begins to rebuild and return to normal, mitigation through which the potential damages of future disasters are addressed, and preparation as previously created plans are put into action and resources are called up in anticipation of an oncoming disaster. Archaeology happens in each of these phases, as plans are evaluated for their potential impact to historic properties or archaeological resources. Federal involvement in the form of grant money or assistance may trigger legally mandated review and consultation, a process that Kellam Throgmorton and others have touched upon already. It can be easy to get caught up in the minutiae of flood plans, areas of potential effects, building codes and documentation as we wend through bureaucracies and navigate conflicting goals and philosophies of the agencies involved in disaster management, so long as the archaeology is done in relation to and to the benefit of the survivors, it is an archaeology of and for the public.

FEMA response personnel help evacuate survivors of Hurricane Matthew. (Photo: Jocelyn Augustino for FEMA.gov)

During my turn at the helm of this blog, I plan on examining the ways that archaeology is created by disasters such as the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fires, the how disaster becomes a part of our own heritage through the memorialization of the 9/11 attacks, and finally, the challenges and opportunities for the work of public archaeology during the response and recovery phases of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

About the Author:

Angela A. McComb is a MAPA student at Binghamton University. She works on archaeology and disaster management with a focus on historic public housing. She has a BA in Anthropology from California State University, Sacramento and has worked for the California Office of Historic Preservation, and the Eldorado National Forest. She recently completed an internship with FEMA Environmental and Historic Preservation, where she worked on the Section 106 process for Hurricane Sandy Recovery grants.

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