La Casa del Libro Museum Library in San Juan was among the many cultural institutions to suffer devastating consequences after hurricanes Irma and Maria walloped Puerto Rico in 2017. Human-driven climate change was the engine behind both.

Strong winds caused the museum's power to go out. This meant no air conditioning. And the high humidity levels threatened the museum's world-class collection of 15th century books and artworks with mold.

About a month after disaster struck, the institution put out a call to the National Heritage Responders Hotline for help.

Climate Change heritage disasters on the rise

The National Heritage Responders is a volunteer network of around 100 experts in cultural heritage conservation from around the country. They assist individuals and institutions in figuring out how to save important objects and buildings after disasters.

Their crisis hotline has been busier than ever in recent years because of more frequent and severe weather brought on by climate change. In 2023, there have been around 70 calls so far, up from fewer than 10 in 2008, when the hotline first appeared. (The hotline is intended for the use of cultural institutions; individual members of the public can get in touch with the network via email.)

"Climate change is increasing the frequency and the severity of the disasters that we're experiencing," said Ann Frellsen. The Atlanta-based book and paper conservator is a longtime heritage responder volunteer with more than three decades of experience helping out cultural institutions after disasters. She was among those deployed to Puerto Rico over several visits starting a couple of months after the hurricanes hit. "It's just a constant battle."

After providing initial support via the phone, Frellsen and her team came in to help La Casa del Libro and other local institutions in crisis with equipment, supplies and advice. (Much of the advice the hotline provides is via phone or video-chat; volunteers are sent out into the field in certain cases, on an as-needed basis.)

"There were no stoplights and there were no signs on the highways, because they'd all blown away," Frellsen said.

Frellsen said figuring out how to reach the more than 20 institutions that needed assistance in Puerto Rico was challenging — and that's to say nothing of the on-the-job hazards.

"As hot and humid as it was, we were in full Tyvek suits the entire time because the mold situation was just unfathomable," Frellsen said.

"We don't have a conservator in-house. We weren't prepared," said La Casa del Libro's executive director, Karen Cana-Cruz. "So the assistance of the National Heritage Responders for us was very important, very appreciated."

Training the next generation

When she isn't heading into disaster zones to help salvage artifacts and heirlooms from fires, hurricanes and floods, Frellsen trains others in the heritage conservation field to do the same.

Recently, she co-led a workshop of professional librarians, archivists and conservators at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

Some of the participants may eventually take the test to become National Heritage Responders. But at this moment, they were deep in a hands-on training exercise, based on an imaginary scenario cooked up by Frellsen and her co-trainers.

In the scenario, a blizzard had triggered the museum's sprinkler system — which can happen in strong winds — and all that water has left behind soggy carpets, excess humidity, and many precious presidential artifacts in a World War II exhibition in peril.

Huddled around a tall glass case containing a ball-gown worn by John F. Kennedy's sister, Rosemary Kennedy, in 1938, the trainee heritage responders tried to figure out how to protect the gauzy, peach-colored dress — and the other treasures on display — from the ravages of mold.

"I would mitigate the high humidity in the space," said Evan Knight, the preservation specialist with Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, the state agency that supports libraries in Massachusetts. "And if we deal with the humidity, then that should help at least arrest mold growth to some extent before a conservator can come in."

But Annie Rubel, a historic preservation expert in Deerfield, Mass., wasn't too keen on this idea.

"Well, I think that this is an extremely fragile piece," Rubel countered. "If there is no textile conservator on the way immediately, I would fashion some kind of support sling and very gently remove it from the area."

Ultimately, they decide to remove the carpet from under the case and stabilize the environment in the case itself.

A World War II legacy

The National Heritage Responders was launched by the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation in 2006.

But it was in the 1940s that the United States and Europe first started thinking seriously about how to recover culturally important artifacts and sites after a crisis. World War II compelled countries to band together to protect cultural treasures, forming a group of 345 men and women from 13 countries known as The Monuments Men.

Since then, efforts around saving cultural heritage after disasters have evolved beyond historic buildings and celebrated works of art.

For example, after floods devastated Eastern Kentucky in 2022, National Heritage Responders helped salvage thousands of reel-to-reel tapes documenting Appalachian cultural traditions. They also recently ran online workshops on disaster recovery for people in Maui following this summer's wildfires.

"A community can't recover if they lose those cultural identities," said Frellsen, "and their cultural identity is often tied up in the objects and the spaces that they live with."

Frellsen said she's excited about the next generation that she's training — especially with human-caused climate change creating a lot more work.

"It's really comforting to know that there are a lot more people who can come in and replace us, with a lot more stamina and energy than I find I have," she said.

"I would really love to be deployed," said Rubel, the preservation expert who attended the training in Boston. Rubel said she hopes her background in building conservation will secure her a spot in the National Heritage Responders' network.

"That's an underrepresented skillset on the team," Rubel said. "So I'm hoping that that comes up sooner rather than later."

Audio and digital story edited by Jennifer Vanasco. Audio produced by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento.

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