Inside Disaster Response: How Did The Experts Become Experts?


"Did I leave the stove on?  Did I unplug the hair dryer?  Did I turn off the water?"  Everyone has those moments, but employees at The Center have learned that such scenarios are well worth double checking.  For over twenty five years, The Center has been at the forefront of the disaster response field, and in that time we've seen disasters from house fires and floods to hurricanes and tornadoes.  It is a difficult field, as situations often prove to be mentally, emotionally, and physically trying. We've pulled paintings out of knee deep flood waters, talked with tearful clients at all hours, and coordinated transport and triage for thousands of items at a time.  However, becoming a disaster response expert does not happen overnight.  We rely on a team of veteran responders to train new staff members on procedures, prevention, and protection.  In this article we will follow the journey of Sarah Phalen and her foray into disaster response. 

In 1992 our CEO, Heather Becker, had a personal experience which was the impetus for forming The Center's Disaster Response Team.  Only three years into her career at The Center, Heather's neighbor's home exploded from a ruptured gas line.  The force of the explosion sent shards of glass and parts of the building into Heather's home, damaging many pieces in her personal collection.  Due to the proximity, firefighters used Heather's residence as a base for bringing the situation under control.  This horrific incident was a very intense, eye-opening experience with disaster response.  When asked what advice she gives to new team members, Heather says, "Think about preventative measures, be very humble and be aware of your surroundings because the situations are dangerous and distracting and can take you off guard."

Client Services Associate, Sarah Phalen, found herself on the receiving end of this advice in October 2016.  The Center received a call from a restoration company out of Peoria, IL.  At first, the call seemed fairly standard--a couple of pieces that had been damaged in a house fire; however, once our contact did a complete survey of the site, the piece count was estimated to be well over 1,000. The collection was significant and included well-known J.J. Audubon works, porcelain pieces, Asian woodblock prints, and more.  There was also a well-curated library of leather-bound and gold-tooled volumes with gilt text blocks, model ships, fine furniture, and a collection of sentimental items, all of which had been affected by the fire. 

The Disaster Response Team firmly believes in learning through experience and brought Sarah on-site to begin her training.  Sarah's team was made up of seasoned administrators and veteran art handlers.  One such member was art handler, Alfredo Garcia, whose first disaster response was Hurricane Sandy in 2012.  Alfredo remembers, "It was bizarre to be in New York without all the chaos you normally see in New York.  We were working down in Chelsea and there were no people around.  It was like a scene from 28 Days Later."   Amanda Maddern who heads the registrarial team and has logged hundreds hours on-site agreed.  "It was insane.  We drove into NYC and it was apocalyptic--streetlights were out, flooding everywhere, very few people on the streets, and people were actually spending the night in their cars in line at the gas stations waiting for their turn.  The facility I worked in there did not have lights, heat, or a working restroom."

While not a hurricane, the fire in Peoria had significantly damaged the client's home and collection.  Soot covered every surface and there was no electricity.

 Once on-site, both art handlers and administrators walked throughout the property with the client and a representative from the restoration company.  Senior Art Handler, Sean Roach, tells all new team members, "Get a sense of the site and assess how you can immediately help while the team leaders meet with the on-site contacts and then do the task you are given to the best of your abilities."

Sarah remembers, "I was surprised by the number of items and the extent of the soot, which made if difficult for us to breath at times, so we put our custom respirators to work."  While the fire started in the corner of the basement, all rooms on all floors suffered mild to severe soot damage.  Fortunately, the nice weather allowed the art handling team to set up a packing station in the garage as the administrative team began the extensive inventory process.

"Some advice that people gave me was to be as organized as possible because it would save a lot of time in the long run.  I was very impressed with how my colleagues immediately came up with a plan of action and everyone began executing their portion of the project," says Sarah.  

While natural disasters can be the most extreme situations we find ourselves in, house fires are more common and are some of the most devastating scenes.  If there is one person at The Center who has seen it all, it is Paul Kirk, the Director of Transportation and Installation.  Paul remembers, "One of the strangest jobs I was on was due to a lightning strike that hit the roof of a private residence.  The lightning started an immediate fire which burnt up large sections of the roof.  The randomness of the incident in a neighborhood full of similar homes struck me as very odd.  Upon entering the home it was raining inside the living room.  The construction team had not yet boarded up the roof, so rain was just pouring in and not much could be done until it stopped."

In Peoria, there was significant damage to pieces nearest the fire, resulting in not only soot damage, but heat and water damage as well.

 After the initial inventory and pack out, the collection was transported to The Center were the examination process began.  Conservators first look at the collection and identify any pieces that need immediate triage.  Addressing damage early prevents further damage down the line, particularly with soot, where the acidic films can become ingrained in a piece which might result in a complete loss.

Josh McCauley, Senior Conservator of Frames and Gilding, remembers his first disaster intake in 2005, where The Center received thousands of wet and moldy items from Hurricane Katrina.  The Center quarantined the affected pieces to minimize contamination.  "It was more mold than I had ever seen, it must have been 8 different varieties and I remember one was hot pink," said Josh.  "You have to have a thick skin with disaster response because there is a lot that you can walk into and sometimes it is hard to take.  You have to be as safe and as clean as you can for yourself and your team."

After the conservators had prioritized the pieces, they provided treatment proposals for each of the nearly 1,300 items.  Sarah continued training during the assessment process as she worked with each department to make sure every piece had an individual exam.  Additionally, she worked with the owner, restoration company, and insurance company and kept all parties apprised of the progress.  Sarah then worked with the client and insurance adjuster to help them understand the treatment recommendations and anticipated results.  After deciding which pieces with which to move forward, treatment began.  Given the variety of media, all 12 departments at The Center were engaged in many different methods of surface cleaning and odor mitigation.

 After many months of meticulous work, the collection was returned to its home.  Pleased with the work and the team, our client said "Recently Paul Kirk and his team did a magnificent job of reinstating my belongings in Peoria."

Sarah continues to work closely with the Disaster Response Team, whose advice and guidance aid her on the long path of eventually becoming an expert herself. Paul explains, "I always tell people training for disaster response to expect the unexpected and be prepared to get your hands dirty.  Also, the client will be understandably distressed.  It helps to explain exactly what our company does and how we are going to go about it.  Most clients are comforted in the fact that their collection is in good hands and out of harm's way.  When Mother Nature does strike in a bad way, hopefully we can be there to help."

Words of Advice on Disaster Prevention

Check plumbing and electric regularly and don’t store valuable items in the basement if you live in a flood plain.
— Josh McCauley, Senior Conservator of Frames and Gilding
Have updated insurance paperwork and accurate reports of collection contents.
— Sean Roach, Senior Art Handler
Work with a risk management professional to make a disaster plan for your home. Constructing the plan will broaden your knowledge about risks and allows you to know the weaknesses of your property.
— Heather Becker, CEO
Don’t run appliances when you are not home.
— Amber Schabdach, Senior Paintings Conservator
As you are installing your collection, think about the environment you are placing the work in and how it may be susceptible to potential disasters.
— Alfredo Garcia, Art Handler
The best advice I could give is to be prepared and take preventative measures to ensure your artwork’s safety. Unfortunately, many clients do not store their artwork properly. We see this in private collections and museum settings as well. The basement floor is never a good idea for art storage. If artwork needs to be stored in the basement, raising it off the ground is a must.
— Paul Kirk, Director of Transportation and Installation