In the end, tide and time worked against us.
Four feet of water from Hurricane Sandy's storm surge flooded three rooms full of Bergen County's history, stored in a Hudson County warehouse, damaging furniture, dolls, toys, clothing, quilts, coverlets, manuscripts, Historical Society records, maps, books and a stock of unique publications and sales items for our gift shop. Although we worked against the clock to save as much as possible, much was sadly lost to water, mold, and time. Despite the loss of electricity in our own homes as well as suffering the other inconveniences attendant upon the storm (well known to many of you), a heroic group of volunteers spent the last two weeks dealing with insurance companies, claims adjusters, all while trying to find a flood remediation company who could provide the emergency services required, namely, to pack-out flood damaged items and ship them to staging areas where conservation work could begin. We needed immediate professional assistance in freezing wet documents and textiles, and in disposing of whatever could not be salvaged. Accordingly, we contacted six flood-remediation companies, but, because of the scope and complexity of our situation and the large demand upon their services, three companies backed out after expressing an initial interest and offering their services—indeed, most discouragingly, one company even backed out as we awaited their arrival on Saturday morning. One determined and dedicated volunteer spent 15 hours on her cell phone between Wednesday, November 7, when she contacted the first remediation company, and Monday November 12, when the "clean out" was finally completed.
Through a timely recommendation from a Yale conservator, we finally obtained the services of Belfor, a nationally recognized disaster recovery specialist that deals with many libraries and archives. They agreed to undertake the work on Saturday, November 10th, and appeared onsite the following day to commence salvage and disposal operations. They proceeded with professional determination, working steadily to meet a deadline to vacate the building by Monday afternoon, November 12th. In the process, Belfor staff, working closely with BCHS volunteers, saved as much as they could, sorting through piles of collapsed boxes under the most difficult circumstances, wearing respirators and plastic gloves. Rescued documents were frozen in a trailer and shipped to Philadelphia for freeze-drying. The next step will be to inventory, describe, and barcode each box. Once that is done and we know what they have and how much freeze-drying and gamma irradiation (to kill germs) will cost, we will have to wait at least a month before our "turn" in the freeze-drier. During that waiting period, the documents will remain frozen, preventing further deterioration. Besides documents, the trailer also carried some books, textiles, and photographs, which will be identified during the inventory.
Other items were removed to temporary storage to be cleaned or assessed for further conservation. Conservator Gary McGowan picked up some of the most important pieces for immediate restoration, including a magnificent collection of antique American flags, storing them either in a freeze-dry unit or a large freezer. He has also contacted experts in textile conservation who may be willing to provide some level of services gratis. Gary also made inquiries to the Fashion Institute of Technology’s conservation program to see if graduate students in textile conservation might be able to treat some materials under the direction of their professional teaching staff, thus defraying some of the costs for conservation. Lastly, his conservation group (NYRAC) is presently researching grant monies that are available for disaster recovery from the hurricane.
We especially wish to recognize and commend the extraordinary volunteer efforts of Deborah Powell, Peggy Norris, Joe Suplicki, John Heffernan, and Gary McGowan, who did so much to rescue our history from this unprecedented natural disaster. Without the dedicated services of such resolute volunteers and professionals, even more would have been lost.
What can you do?
1. We now have critical need of free, safe storage space.
2. We need to move forward quickly with our fund-raising to build a museum. Please contribute what you can!
3. We need donations to pay for restoration of artifacts that will cost far more than our insurance will provide.
If you know of space or wish to help in any way, write to: contactBCHS@bergencountyhistory.org
Ask yourself—Just how valuable are the lessons of history? If you enjoyed this article, then please consider joining the Bergen County Historical Society, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) volunteer organization, founded in 1902. We are dedicated to preserving important evidence of the past and promoting historical literacy through interesting programs and publications.
We don't receive public operating support or grants the way other groups do, but rely entirely upon private donations, membership dues and volunteer contributions of time and talent. We are presently trying to raise $350,000 to construct a first-rate historical museum building and library for Bergen County on the Society’s property at Historic New Bridge Landing, 1201 Main Street, River Edge, NJ 07661. For further information or membership application, visit: http://www.bergencountyhistory.org