This past week, Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast with record amounts of rainfall, displacing millions of residents of the Houston metropolitan area and causing widespread property damage of inestimable cost. I’ve been following the news from the East Coast, awed and heartbroken at the devastation, and frequently coming across photographs with captions like this: “A resident looks for important papers and heirlooms inside his grandfather’s house after it was flooded by heavy rains.”
Having once worked with a conservator who volunteered as part of the American Institute for Conservation’s Collections Emergency Response Team, I was aware that larger museums, archives, and other document repositories often (but certainly not always) have procedures in place for when disaster strikes. Qualified experts have compiled best practice guides and conducted training programs with cultural heritage professionals in order to prepare them for unavoidable situations where their collections could be damaged, and many institutions carry insurance policies in case of emergency. The AASLH, which will hold their annual conference in Austin in the coming week, has issued a statement that includes a list of resources for organizations and museums in need. Despite all these measures, some amount of permanent damage to important collections will inevitably be sustained. Although necessarily secondary in importance to the lives lost during the disaster and recovery efforts, the loss of irreplaceable cultural heritage artifacts and documents in the collections of museums, archives, and cultural organizations, will be tragic.
But in seeing the aforementioned photo captions, it strikes me that many peoples’ personal histories will be lost to the flood as well. They have fewer resources to help retain their personal archives. They will lose photographs of loved ones, heirlooms, keepsakes, and important documents. While the latter example is less sentimental than the others, it is more likely to have far-reaching consequences. In Texas, citizenship is a raw, contentious issue. Border patrol checkpoints dot the highways, remaining open even during evacuation. What will happen to people who may have lost their residency paperwork? Will they receive the same amount of recovery aid as their neighbors? Will they be deported, or detained pending administrative review? What will be the life-or-death consequences of this loss of documentation? When we attach so much meaning to paper documents, what is left when they float away?
*Update: This article from CityLab, a subsidiary of The Atlantic, explores the chilling implications that this will have on upcoming elections, given punitive voter ID legislation and the more frequent occurrence of this type of disaster given global climate change: “How Voter ID Laws Disenfranchise Voters in the Wake of a Hurricane.” Here’s an excerpt which connects all the dots:
[Assistant Council at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Deuel] Ross, who has worked with families trying to rebuild their lives in the face of fire and flooding, is concerned by how the current political climate and escalating weather events could work in tandem to harm poor communities of color. “Communities affected the most are cities in the south, which are often poorer, more rural, [and predominantly] African American,” he says. “Given that this is now the second major storm here in the U.S. in the last 10 or so years, I’m very worried that this kind of thing could continue to happen, and continue to impact the communities most vulnerable and unable to deal with the burden of having everything in their lives destroyed.”