Climate Change Is Destroying American History

13 minute read
Marks is the Senior Manager, Strategic Initiatives and the Director of the Public History Research Lab at the American Association for State and Local History

As Hurricane Ida barreled down on the Louisiana coast last August, all Ashley Rogers could do was wait and hope. Sixteen years to the day from when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Rogers—the executive director of the Whitney Plantation historic site in Wallace, La.— had evacuated to Alabama to wait out the storm and for news from the site.

A former sugar and indigo plantation about 50 miles east of New Orleans, Whitney Plantation has established itself as one of the nation’s premiere historic sites and one of the only former plantations dedicated entirely to sharing the history of American slavery. Like everything in southern Louisiana, it had seen its share of bad weather. With hurricane season starting earlier and sending a growing number of storms spiraling toward the coast each year, however, Rogers knew they had been lucky to avoid a direct hit. With Hurricane Ida, that luck ran out.

The storm, which made landfall on Aug. 29, 2021, battered the region and devastated Whitney Plantation. Nearly every building on site was damaged; two slave cabins collapsed completely. Ida felled trees and scattered debris across the site. Power lines lay draped across the site’s only entrance for days with no indication of when electricity might be restored. The scope of the damage made reopening the site—and bringing in the revenue needed to preserve the rest of what was damaged—impossible in the short term. It was immediately clear that some of what was lost could never be fully recovered. After expecting to be closed for just a few days, the site ended up shuttered for more than three months.

Read more: The Uncertain Future of Places That Preserve America’s Past

“Overwhelming is the only word I could use to describe it,” Rogers recently told me about the damage Ida caused the site. “I just had no idea how we would even begin to recover.”

Sadly, Whitney Plantation’s experience is no outlier. Each year, severe weather disasters affect hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the history museums, archives, and related organizations tasked with preserving and interpreting American history. As global climate change increases both the number and severity of such events—and as the history and preservation communities struggle to meet the urgency of this crisis—the nation’s legacy is increasingly at risk. With each hurricane, wildfire, and flood, some of our history is lost forever.

The Whitney Plantation was devastated by Hurricane Ida in August 2021.William Widmer—Redux

According to new research published in June by the American Association for State and Local History—a project I directed—the United States is home to more than 21,500 history museums, historical societies, and related history organizations. The vast majority of those institutions operate on shoestring budgets and many are run entirely by volunteers, a fragile dynamic that raises major challenges when it comes to both planning for and recovering from any disruption. There are also thousands of additional entities, from cemeteries to community organizations, that hold critical pieces of the nation’s cultural patrimony in their care. Simply put, American history is everywhere.

Increasingly, so are natural disasters. Last year, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), declared 58 “major disasters” in the United States; Hurricane (later Tropical Storm) Ida caused six of those, stretching from Louisiana to Connecticut. Others included wildfires in California and Colorado, mudslides in Washington, and tornadoes in Tennessee. Twenty separate disasters last year each caused more than a billion dollars in damage, the second highest annual total on record. Already in 2022, the country has experienced 24 major disasters, from wildfires in New Mexico and landslides in Puerto Rico to severe flooding in Kentucky, Montana, South Dakota, and elsewhere.

Read more: Did We Just Blow Our Last, Best Chance to Tackle Climate Change?

The dispersed nature of the nation’s historical assets makes calculating the precise scope of the resulting loss nearly impossible—a major problem of its own—but evidence of it is easy to find.

Just last month, several history organizations in Kentucky were devastated by flooding while the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, N.H., revealed that historic buildings on their campus now regularly fill with nearly two feet of water. Last year, the Superior Historical Museum outside Boulder, Colo., burned to the ground in the Marshall Fire, losing the entirety of its historical collection. In 2019, staff from the Arizona Historical Society had to rush to save collections items from their Pioneer Museum from the encroaching “Museum Fire”—so named because it began near another museum, Flagstaff’s near-century-old Museum of Northern Arizona. On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, rising sea levels are erasing the history of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Even the Smithsonian Institution is vulnerable, with the National Museum of American History fighting back flooding into critical collections storage spaces amid rising tides and heavy rain. A simple search for “flood” or “fire” and “museum” brings up many other examples just from the past year.

Yet despite the very real, immediate impact natural disasters have on history organizations each year, there are few resources available for either planning or recovery—and not nearly enough urgency to begin providing them.

Artifacts at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., Nov. 12, 2021. Flooding has breached rooms containing the museum's collections.Erin Schaff—The New York Times/Redux

As Ashley Rogers and the Whitney Plantation staff worked toward recovery in the days and weeks after Hurricane Ida last year, they confronted a stark reality: for museums and historic sites recovering from a climate disaster, help can be hard to come by.

“The whole process was very overwhelming, especially since it wasn’t something we had gone through before and we did not have an emergency plan,” Rogers told me. The museum’s small staff, still evacuated, was forced to manage from afar the multiple crews of people cutting trees and shoring up structures, as well as energy-company personnel, insurance adjusters, and others accessing the site. “Recovery in the weeks immediately following the storm was basically organized chaos.”

For museums and cultural institutions affected by severe weather, the Heritage Emergency National Task Force (HENTF)—a partnership between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI)—is among the first responders. HENTF endeavors to protect cultural heritage in the wake of natural disasters by connecting institutions with on-the-ground partners to assist with the delivery of resources and by keeping in touch as they try to navigate the process of applying for relief funds.

Those relief funds, intended to aid in recovery and replace revenue lost from extended closures, are typically available from three sources: private insurance, FEMA, and the Small Business Administration (SBA). But actually accessing funding is often an uphill battle.

Read more: U.S. Civil Engineers Bent the Rules to Give New Orleans Extra Protection from Hurricanes. Those Adjustments Might Have Saved the City During Ida

“Navigating the process can be overwhelming, especially for smaller organizations,” Lori Foley, HENTF’s coordinator, commented to me. HENTF—one of the only entities coordinating support services for cultural institutions after a natural disaster, and which is primarily staffed by Foley on her own—strives, she noted, “to meet people where they are and provide encouragement to ‘make it to the end.’”

Many insurance policies are often focused more on replacing lost operating revenue rather than the value of damaged artifacts and can be poorly suited to the nature of historic sites facing storm damage. At Whitney Plantation, for example, many of the buildings had been left outside the scope of the site’s insurance policy. Meanwhile, for FEMA assistance, the application process—in what Rogers describes as a well-intentioned but infeasible attempt to prevent further damage to artifacts—would have required the Whitney Plantation staff to document the latitude and longitude of every piece of debris or to have an archaeologist inspect the root ball of every downed tree before the agency would fund their removal. And Disaster Loan Assistance from SBA comes with its own set of documentation requirements. Each of these sources of aid are often dependent on the others, meaning months of wait time while the costs of disaster recovery are immediate.

“It was an unbelievable challenge,” Rogers said. While Whitney’s national reputation allowed it to raise money from public donations, “we received no federal, state, or local recovery funds….Some of that was simply unavailable or inaccessible, and others were just very complicated systems that were hard to navigate” while carrying out all the other aspects of the recovery with very limited time and resources.

Some assistance, though small, is more readily available for cultural institutions. For example, some of the most substantive aid Whitney Plantation received came in the form of a $10,000 grant from the privately operated Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities—a drop in the bucket when facing such extensive damage, but easily accessible in the middle of a crisis. Meanwhile, the American Institute for Conservation coordinates the “National Heritage Responders,” a source of 24-hour emergency response assistance for anyone seeking advice on how to care for resources (documents, historic objects, clothing, etc.) that have been damaged by severe weather.

A year after Hurricane Ida, and many months after it incurred the expense of responding to the crisis, Whitney Plantation is only now receiving some of its disaster relief funding. For the thousands of organizations with fewer resources and less wherewithal than Whitney—about 65% of nonprofit history organizations operate on less than $50,000 in revenue each year—a climate catastrophe not only can destroy historical artifacts, it can also push organizations past the breaking point.

Despite the obvious signs of crisis, ensuring the nation’s historical resources survive to the next generation has remained a niche topic even within the professional history community.

“I don’t think enough people are talking about climate change as an immediate, honest-to-God threat,” Rogers said. But there is no longer a question of if an institution will be affected by severe weather disasters; it’s strictly a matter of when, and how the institution will respond.

Thankfully, there are some signs that the history and museum communities are beginning to take this challenge more seriously.

Several studies over the past decade highlight the climate-related risks to American and global history. With titles like National Landmarks at Risk: How Rising Seas, Floods, and Wildfires are Threatening the United States’ Most Cherished Historic Sites; Cultural Resources and Climate Change Strategy; The Future of Our Pasts: Engaging Cultural Heritage in Climate Action; and Stemming the Tide: Global Strategies for Sustaining Cultural Heritage through Climate Change, these studies sound the alarm in incredible detail.

Read more: The 250th Birthday of the U.S. Is Just a Few Years Away. Get Ready for Controversy

This past May, newly confirmed NEH Chair Shelly Lowe highlighted the impact of climate change on cultural institutions as among the issues she hoped to prioritize in her tenure. The agency, in partnership with the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation, is also addressing climate risk as part of its “Held In Trust” initiative, bringing together leaders from across the field to research the problem and develop scalable, actionable solutions. In the Senate appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2023 released in late July, the Institute of Museum and Library Services—an independent federal agency—is slated to receive $20 million to provide much-needed grants for facilities improvements at U.S. cultural institutions.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, meanwhile, has placed “Climate Resilience” as one of the goals of its newly published National Impact Agenda and has made climate action a pillar of its upcoming national conference. The emergency preparedness planning resource dPlan|ArtsReady recently relaunched, providing a much-needed tool for arts and culture organizations. The nonprofit Environment & Culture Partners—led by longtime cultural-sector climate and environment leaders Sarah Sutton and Stephanie Shapiro—provides much needed training about risks and opportunities related to sustainability and climate change. More narrowly, individual communities and institutions have launched their own planning initiatives to consider the risks posed by severe weather disasters.

But in an environment where staff and volunteers are already stretched beyond capacity—often defending their very existence against political attacks—connecting emerging research with professional practice is a perpetual challenge. Even organizations that want to get organized often lack the know-how to do it.

“It is often hardest for the smallest of these institutions to prepare for extreme weather events,” Sarah Sutton told me recently.

So what would concrete action look like? History organizations need educational resources to know how to prepare for climate disasters, incentives to advance that work in cooperation with their counterparts at other institutions, and—most of all—funding to carry out these plans appropriately.

“After a disaster, more funding is needed to help community and cultural organizations recover,” Foley told me. “We need to raise awareness of the importance of protecting the stories, lore, documents, records, and artwork held in the public trust by cultural organizations, large and small.”

When disasters do happen, financial resources to support recovery need to be both more abundant and more easily accessible. Few organizations are equipped to navigate federal funding procedures at any time, let alone in the wake of a catastrophe. Yet the federal government is perhaps the only entity that can address this issue at the size and scale necessary to make a real impact. Making federal history funding more accessible, such as through an increase in funding to the 56 state and jurisdictional humanities councils operated by the NEH, would make a huge difference. Perhaps the fact that decisions about distributing that funding would happen not in Washington, D.C., but in individual states and communities would allow for such an increase to receive bipartisan support.

Read more: Climate Change Used to Be a Bipartisan Issue. Here’s What Changed

Meanwhile, those of us in the field—along with the general public—must continue difficult conversations about what gets preserved and why. Although we can do much more than we are at present to protect history from natural disasters, there’s only so much preparation a site like Whitney Plantation can undertake. “It is on us to start talking about this—because my generation and the young folks coming out of grad school now will have to face very hard choices about what we save and what we don’t,” Rogers told me.

In less than four years, the United States will mark its 250th anniversary as an independent nation. Such anniversaries are not only a time to commemorate our collective history, but also, as historian M.J. Ryszma Pawlowska noted recently, a time to look to the future. The Semiquincentennial provides us an opportunity to accelerate our national conversation about cultural heritage—and to build broad support for bold, urgent action to preserve it from the threat of natural disaster.

If we want American history to survive to the Tricentennial, the time to act is now.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.