Sunday, October 22, 2017

Hurricane Irma rips into the Orange County Regional History Center's Collection Facility

After weathering Hurricane Irma, a category 2 hurricane, I helped Pam Schwartz to clean up all the broken tree limbs in her yard. Her property is gorgeously landscaped but that meant she had tons of fallen branches. The pile we built curbside was, and still is, 10 feet wide and as high as my hips. We bagged the smaller branches and those were picked up, but the rest of the debris is still on her lawn killing the grass, but providing home to many snakes. She was without power for the week.

We were exhausted from moving so much debris but late that afternoon she said she had to stop by the Orange County Regional History Center off-site facility. She just wanted to see that everything was OK. The plan was to do a quick check and then pick up some food. We hadn't eaten all day, there was too much to do.

En route, my phone warned me that there was potential flooding. Within the next quarter mile, sure enough the road looked like a river. Her SUV made it through without a hitch. It was getting near sunset when we drove up to the facility. We were shocked by the view. The large parking lot in front of the building looked like a lake. We parked on the far side of the lake and took our shoes off to wade across. The water was up above my knees in the deepest section of the lot. In hind site we should have checked to be sure there were no downed power lines. Luckily we weren't electrocuted.

The warehouse is a bit above the parking lot level and the front entry of the facility was clear with no water. Then we entered the conservation room where most of the work to preserve Pulse memorial items had been done. The ceiling panels were soaked, and several waterlogged panels had fallen to the floor. The panels must burst on impact under their own weight because shards were scattered everywhere. Pam groaned.

Pam is the chief curator of the Orange County Regional History Center. This is a curator's worst nightmare, secondhand only to fire. With just two panels missing in the conservation room, the damage didn't look too bad. Boxes on the floor had soaked up the water. Pam asked me to salvage a box of Pulse related archives, cards and notes of remembrance. I lifted the waterlogged box and then took all the papers and laid them out to dry in the break room. So much work had gone into preserving the memorial items from Pulse. They had been saved from the afternoon rainstorms that are consistent on any summer day in Orlando at the memorial sites. Now they needed to be saved once again.

After cleaning up much of the mess in the conservation room, Pam called me outside. A giant double rainbow now arched above the newly formed parking lot lake. Maybe things were looking up. Then, back inside, Pam opened up the double doors that lead into the main area of the storage facility. She let out a gasp. I couldn't see around her. The damage wasn't limited to the conservation room we had been working on. Ceiling panels had collapsed throughout the storage facility. Pam went into triage mode and my first assignment was to save the art which was below a fallen soaked panel. I found large tarps to cover the art as a short term solution. The point of the off-site facility is to maintain a museum standard of temperature and humidity. With the ceilings compromised everything was at risk.

For the rest of the night, I picked up ceiling panels and soaked insulation and made a debris pile in the loading dock area. The small mountain I built was about 10 feet in diameter and about 5 feet high. I decided not to touch any artifacts, I would leave that to the pros. For some reason I paused as I lifted a panel off of this large industrial lamp behind an old citrus ladder. The lamp was on a wooden skid which protected it from the water. Ironically the lamp was in the History Center's Reflections magazine that just came out this week. The new acquisition was donated by Tom Bessa and is from McCoy Air Force Base. It dates back to the 1950s and a workman removing the item offered it to Bessa. Now it is part of Orlando's History. Every item in the storage facility has a similar personal story.

Pam called her entire collections staff that night to help get the facility under control. Thank goodness Joe Austin sent snacks for us with Jessica Domingo, by that time Pam and I were running on fumes. Anything on the floor was at risk of water damage. Water was still dripping from every open ceiling panel. I cleared a walkway so the staff could move items from the collection to dryer ground.

We later learned that a metal roof access hatch had blown off and the hurricane force winds had propelled it over the roof. Each time the hatch crashed down it ripped a hole in the roof's covering.  From there, the water dripped down into the insulation and ceiling panels which would crash down from the weight. Large puddles of water were everywhere. By the end of the night most of the museum artifacts had been moved away from collapsed panels. Much of the Pulse collection was in the worst affected areas, so the need to act with speed was critical with already compromised artifacts.

All of the water has now been removed from the floor and a small army of about a dozen humidifiers is working around the clock to remove moisture from the air. The interior walls that touch the floor all developed mold in their inner cavities. Simply put, black mold isn't good when you are hoping to preserve historic artifacts. The lower drywall panels were removed from all the affected walls. Plastic encapsulations now separate the spaces with zippers allowing access between rooms. The plastic is intended to protect the collection as workers reinstall drywall and to assist in regulation/stabilization of temperature and humidity. Work is now under way to repair the walls, the ceiling tiles and insulation have been replaced. Conservation is still ongoing to restore any artifacts that suffered from water damage, but every single item of the few thousand affected artifacts were saved. The incredibly fast response of the core collections staff of the History Center helped avert what could have been a much bigger tragedy. With the lessons learned from this disaster, they are offering advice to Leu Gardens Historic Home, which suffered damage after a tree fell on the roof of the home.

P.S. These sketches were created post-event from my photographs. This is an anomaly as that is not the way I tend to work. However, this wasn't the time to sit down and create art.

Prints are available for each sketch for $250 and many originals can be purchased for $400. White museum grade shadow box frames are $100 more. You can e-mail Thor at

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