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    After the Main St. Fire: Disaster Recovery
    by Julia Merkel, PreservationSpecialist
    with Mary Wilson Stewart, Preservation Officer (retired)

    On Sunday, November 16, a fire gutted the former Medical Arts building housing the JMU offices of the Chancellor, Payroll, Procurement, Accounts Payable, Cash and Investments, Controller, Grants and Contracts, and Finance.  Following the fire, Ralph Alberico, Dean of Libraries, alerted us about the possibility of assisting in the clean-up.  On Monday, he contacted University Administration and offered our combined expertise and the resources of the JMU Libraries’ Disaster Plan to assist in the university’s recovery efforts. 

    In a fire, burned and charred materials are not the only “casualties.”  Smoke and debris are damaging, but water from fire hoses and from the torrential rains that arrived in the aftermath of this disaster were devastating.  Huge amounts of materials were lost—many that would have been salvageable with an immediate response.  Workers from Facilities Management were responsible for wheeling filing cabinets out of the building, and the employees whose offices were affected had a very small window of time to remove personal belongings before the building was condemned. The roofing was severely compromised and in danger of collapse.  We were not informed of a master plan, but clearly someone was in charge of routing materials to storage and reallocating offices and temporary work spaces.  These decisions are not easy to make—especially in the midst of a crisis.  A well-organized disaster plan is crucial to initiating timely recovery efforts.

    Timing is essential because mold and mildew begin to set in within 48 hours.  By Tuesday, the proverbial clock was running.  On Wednesday, Nov. 19th, Diana Hamilton-Puffenbarger from Procurement called Mary Wilson requesting help with some of her contracts.  Mary expected to pick up a box or two and work on their recovery from her home preservation studio.  Instead she found an entire department in need of assistance.  Many of the staff members had left multiple contracts on top of their desks the night of the fire—all were smoke and water saturated.

    One of the options for dealing with large quantities of wet materials is freezing.  Frozen materials can be dried and processed under better conditions and when time and space allow.  Mary immediately called Cassco Ice & Cold Storage to reserve freezer space, she then alerted me.  I gathered supplies from the library’s disaster closet with the help of Jennifer Murphy (a Tech Services student assistant), met a Facilities truck on the loading dock, and proceeded to Procurement’s temporary quarters in the Williamson computer lab.  The scene in the lab was daunting.  While Procurement staff had rows of computers at the ready, they had little to no physical space for sorting and stacking.  Decisions on what to save first, what could be discarded immediately, and what could be frozen and dealt with at a later date were being made in the moment.  Adding to the chaos was the problem of identifying water-logged materials before priority decisions could be made.  While a well-written disaster plan cannot anticipate every scenario, the structure and order it provides does save valuable time in the midst of a crisis.

    Mary Wilson instructed Procurement personnel to pack their materials in freezer paper, mark the boxes and keep inventory records. Contracts that needed immediate attention were taken into a hallway, a fan and dehumidifier were ordered, and we began the salvaging/drying process.  The Procurement staff didn’t have the means to assist us in this effort.  This was disturbing as we could in no way salvage the reams of documents alone. After all, this was the third day, and mold was already beginning to appear. We insisted on help and Wayne Durrer called the Student Employment Office who immediately posted a “help wanted” call. 

    Students began showing up for work within two hours.  We were in the unfortunate position of turning students away because of the lack of space! The students were amazingly helpful, smart and considerate. They quickly fell into our routine of carefully separating soaked and stuck papers, interleaving paper toweling between sheets, and rotating/replacing toweling during the drying process.  A copier was made available, and the most damaged materials were copied and discarded before the mold and mildew rendered them illegible.  The students were mindful of the importance of order as all contracts had to be kept in perfect pagination.  One contract/file could have hundreds of pages, so working with one long table (that arrived on Thursday) was better than the floor but the work space was still less than ideal.  We cannot say enough good things about the students who arrived to help. 

    Fortunately for the Payroll Offices, a large conference room in the University Services building was made available for their recovery efforts with multiple fans to keep the air circulating.  (Mold loves damp and stagnant air.)  They were able to spread documents out to dry on row after row of conference tables, easily maintaining order. 

    The recovery continues and will continue for weeks, if not months.  Mary Wilson worked through the Thanksgiving break and has been retrieving two boxes at a time from Cassco Ice, drying them in a work area in her home.  After the documents thaw enough to separate, they are spread out to dry and/or interleaved with toweling.  Procurement is replacing the supplies from the library’s disaster closet.  A complete tally of what and how much was lost is unknown at this time.  Documents from the Chancellor’s office were taken to cold storage rather than frozen, so losses there (particularly historical documents from the Carrier presidency) may be very great.

    What can we learn from this?  Those of us in the Library can consult the Library Disaster Plan (LDP).  Know your roles in the event of a disaster.  The Disaster Recovery Team, led by an Emergency Coordinator (Dean Alberico) and Assistant EC (Sandy Maxfield) is comprised of four separate teams: Collection Salvage, Building, Communications, Services and an individual Recorder.  If you are a team leader, you should know your responsibilities, know your teammates, and have their contact information at your fingertips.  It is also advisable to keep a copy of the LDP at home or in your vehicle.  In fact, maintaining a personal emergency kit for quicker response is also suggested.  Items to include: a change of clothes, waterproof shoes, flash light with fresh batteries, work gloves, rubber gloves, hat (even a hard hat if available.)  Additional personal items might also include: a pocket knife, bottled water, note pad and pencil, aspirin, and energy bars.  Ask questions of the Salvage Team.  Update priorities for salvage efforts on the LDP every Summer.  Read up on preparing for disasters. And in your daily work, remember to file important documents at the end of the working day—they will be less vulnerable in a filing cabinet or drawer. 

    Libraries and archives have preservation of materials as part of our mission; thus, we were able to provide a leadership role in this disaster.  But beyond the library, most of us maintain some type of archive, whether it is comprised of important pictures and papers in our homes, or documents in our businesses or offices.  Remember to protect those important papers and to be prepared with your own disaster plan.

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