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Museums Are Ready for the Next Natural Disaster. Are You?

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This story originally appeared on Slate and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

When Superstorm Sandy ripped through New York City in October 2012, it did not discriminate. At the construction site of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, chief operating officer John Stanley recalls “mechanical equipment bobbing like corks” in the floodwaters. And at the Rubin Museum of Art, a few blocks uptown, and upland, the museum lost power—a necessity for preserving the artifacts from environmental damage—and the backup generators weren’t enough to keep the facility running. “We thought if we do lose power, in the history of New York City, it would be for a day or two,” executive director Patrick Sears says. “No one really anticipated we could go without power for a week.”

But as once-rare storms like these become more common and more consequential (Sandy caused an estimated $70 billion in damage, behind only Hurricane Katrina), coastal communities are reorienting to a world where they might be underwater at a moment’s notice. And museums are leading the charge when it comes to bolstering up in the face of extreme weather—after all, financially speaking, they might have the most to lose. Along the Eastern Seaboard, from Miami to Manhattan, curators are going to extremes to safeguard their art. And in doing so, they’re testing out ideas and processes that might later be adopted by everyone else who lives on the coast.

Looking back, Stanley says the timing of Superstorm Sandy was actually fortuitous for his museum, the Whitney. Because it was early enough in construction, the team was able to revise its plans with water in mind. “We searched the world for flood experts and engineers,” he says. With the help of WTM Engineers in Hamburg, Germany, the Whitney design team re-evaluated the entire site and, as the Atlantic reported in 2015, built one of the most flood-resilient structures in town.

All along the Eastern Seaboard, from Miami to Manhattan, curators are going to extremes to safeguard their art.

As a result of lessons learned in Sandy, the museum is waterproof up to 16½ feet thanks to its raised elevation and carefully selected materials. It’s also got walls galore: A 500-foot-long mobile wall can be constructed in less than seven hours to protect the museum from a storm surge’s impact, and a 14-by-27-foot flood door can withstand the force of a semitruck floating (or flung) across the West Side Highway. Stanley says it cost just $10 million more to disaster-proof what was, in total, a $220 million project. And though the safeguards haven’t been tested the hard way, he’s confident they’ll rise to the occasion if—or rather, when—another disaster unfolds.

Some museums farther south on the Atlantic seaboard have already lived to see their hurricane-resistant designs tested by storms. Employees at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, recently weathered Hurricane Irma with little damage. Back in July, a videographer for the Washington Post filmed inside the “surreal shelter from the storm.” To protect the precious collection, the Dalí relies on 18-inch-thick walls, which are built to withstand the winds of a Category 5 storm, and fortified glass, which can hold up under the pressure of Category 3 winds. As with so many other museums, the Dalí’s decision to gird its infrastructure seems financially sound: If its walls were breached, the largest collection of Salvador Dalí paintings in the world, priceless and carefully preserved over the past century, could be lost in an instant.

The architectural features that make the Whitney, Dalí, and similar spaces so safe have recently begun to proliferate far and wide, thanks in part to consumer demand and new municipal standards. Perhaps the purest emblem of this surge-priced survival model is the new residential American Copper Buildings. Like the Whitney, these structures sit in Evacuation Zone 1, but on Manhattan’s eastern shore. While it seems damage from another hurricane is all but guaranteed, the waiting list for a unit in one of the American Copper towers is long.

That’s due primarily to the fact that the $650 million buildings, which were started before Sandy hit, reportedly go beyond even the city’s newest resilient design codes—and look great doing it. Connected by a three-story skybridge, the two towers have an elevated lobby that makes them virtually waterproof. The building is also served by rooftop backup generators that promise enough energy to run the elevators plus one fridge and one electrical outlet in each apartment indefinitely. In January, the New York Times wrote this glowing report:

There is a breathtaking view of the mid-Manhattan skyline, pierced by the Empire State Building, from the 48th floor of the taller of two new copper-clad apartment towers along the East River, just south of the United Nations.

No plutocrat will enjoy it, however. This impressive penthouse aerie is hogged by five emergency generators. The window is already blocked by a bank of electrical switchgear. For the developers, giving up premium space to machinery is insurance against an ominous future: They want tenants in the towers’ 760 apartments to be able to live in their apartments for at least a week, no matter how high floodwaters may reach nor how long the power is out. Sure, in the face of an impending storm, residents will still have to get the hell out just like any other New Yorker adhering to evacuation mandates. But American Copper promises them a return to a clean, safe, and electrified home.

Only 39 percent of Americans have a disaster preparedness plan.

Though JDS Development Group, which owns American Copper Buildings, may have been leading the charge on resilient design, the rest of New York City’s new construction is quickly catching up. After Sandy, the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency set about studying the metro area’s…


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