This is the first post in the COSTEP MA blog series Disaster Diaries. Disaster Diaries will share stories from institutions across Massachusetts that have recently experienced a collections emergency or disaster. To contribute a post, email email@example.com.
“Thunderstorms wreak havoc across Massachusetts, microburst halts Logan flights”
Boston Herald, July 31, 2019
“Thousands without power as strong thunderstorms roll through”
Boston Globe, July 31, 2019
“Bay State rocked by lightning, powerful wind, torrential rain as storms rumble through”
Channel 7 News Boston, July 31, 2019
As described in the headlines above, a powerful storm system swept through Greater Boston on July 31, 2019. The string of thunderstorms, which affected the entire state, developed into a microburst over Columbia Point, the peninsula where the Massachusetts Archives, as well as UMass Boston, the JFK Presidential Library and Museum, and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate, are all located. At around 3:30 that afternoon staff watched as torrential rain and hail buffeted the archives facility and neighboring institutions. By 4:00, the Archives had experienced its worst emergency to date.
During the storm a lightning bolt struck the copper flashing on the roof of the building, causing the roof’s rubber membrane to distort and open a hole for a torrent of water to rush into the vaults beneath. The deluge, which lasted for maybe 10-15 minutes before the burst passed over the area, cascaded through all four vault levels in the building. What follows is a short account of how Archives staff responded to the downpour and successfully recovered hundreds of boxes and individual records during this extreme weather event.
Alerted to the fact that water was pouring into the 4th floor vault, archives staff split up and checked all of the remaining vaults to assess how far the water had traveled while a few stayed behind to start moving records out of the way of the leak on the 4th floor. When it quickly became clear that the water had penetrated all the way to the 1st floor, teams of 2 to 3 people immediately began moving records away from the affected zones in each vault. Staff from other divisions in the building and the Archives interns were quickly mobilized and assisted in the response. The facilities and securities teams also leapt into action by retrieving large plastic bins to catch the flow of water in each vault and by clearing the standing water on the vault floors using the building’s emergency wet vacuums.
Since the downpour of water had spread to entire aisles in the vaults, there wasn’t enough space in the immediate vicinity to lay out all of the wet or damp materials away from the water. Staff determined that moving the wet and damp materials to another leak-free vault with controlled temperature and relative humidity and enough space to set up rows of tables would be the best course of action. As some teams were moving records out of the water zones, other teams began shuttling records to this designated triage zone. The facilities and securities teams began setting up fans in all zones to circulate air over the affected materials. One staff member began removing records from wet boxes and laying them out on the tables in front of the circulating air, placing the wet boxes underneath the tables as an indicator of which records were housed together and how new enclosures should be labeled.
Once it was safe to assess the damage on the roof, the facilities team, Executive Director, and Curator worked together to figure out the source of the water incursion and temporarily patch the roof until a professional could be called to the scene. Over the next 2 hours, everyone joined forces to move records away from the leaks into the triage vault, assess records for dampness, remove records from sopping enclosures, place records in front of circulating air to dry overnight, and dry the aisles in the affected vaults. At around 6:30pm, once the leak had been stopped, the roof temporarily patched, the affected vaults dried and cleared of water, large bins placed to catch any residual drips, and the records laid out to dry in the triage vault, staff retrieved tarps and plastic sheeting from the Archives’ emergency supply, covered the adjacent aisles in all four vaults, and called it a night. The Executive Director asked staff to show up early the next day and dress down to prep for recovery.
Here is a breakdown of the supplies used during response:
- Plastic tarps
- Plastic sheeting
- Large portable fans and desk fans
- Blotting paper
- Collapsible tables
- Wet vacuums
- Large plastic bins to catch drips
- Rolling carts
- Paper towels
The next day, archives staff convened in the morning to go over the plan for recovery. All of the affected vaults were checked to see if additional water had leaked overnight. Thankfully, the temporary patch held and the vaults were dry. While staff began assessing the records in the triage vault to prioritize recovery efforts, the Executive Director arranged for a roof contractor to repair the roof damage.
Records in the triage vault that had been left to dry overnight canvassed a variety of records types, including boxed records, bound materials, and rolled plans. As detailed previously, during the disaster, any materials that were housed in boxes or enclosures impacted by the water intrusion were removed. Dampened records were spread on open tables and exposed to circulating air, with careful attention given to maintaining their order and attachment to their descriptive identifiers during this process. All impacted materials were left under these controlled circumstances overnight. Fortunately, no materials had been thoroughly soaked, and by the next morning removed items were ready to be re-boxed. Teams were directed to the task of building and labeling new boxes, and re-boxed records were returned to their original vault locations.
A number of unboxed bound volumes did get wet during the emergency. These were removed and laid out to dry on blotting paper overnight. Upon inspection the next morning, active mold growth was found in many volumes (it was surmised that inactive mold growth, the presence of which staff had been unaware, was the likely culprit for this development). In response, the Executive Director promptly arranged for the facilities crew to purchase an industrial freezer that morning. Archives staff called Evan Knight, the Preservation Specialist for the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), to report on the disaster and ask for advice about how to respond to the mold outbreak. Archives staff placed groups of volumes in plastic bags, included descriptive notes about each bag’s contents, and stored them in the freezer to prevent further mold expansion. Staff deliberated on whether or not to interleave the volumes with blotting paper, but ultimately decided against it due to the sturdy condition of the cloth covers. Staff and interns then spent the rest of the afternoon surveying the entire series of bound records in the immediate and adjoining vault areas from which the wet books had been removed. Any books found with inactive mold evidence were then placed in individual plastic bags within document boxes and moved to a designated quarantine location. Fortunately, these books had been previously digitized and made accessible online, and are a duplicative set of published materials held by other state institutions.
Overall, despite the sudden and dramatic nature of the event, minimal damage was sustained to the affected collections at the Massachusetts Archives.
Preparing for Future Events and Lessons Learned
The most important determining factor in the Archives’ ability to turn around a worst-case scenario (apart from the cosmic timing of the storm, which occurred when all staff were still present in the building) was communication. Under the leadership of the Executive Director, Curator, and Head of Reference, Archives staff were able to break out into teams and swiftly respond to the disaster in real time. Staff continuously reconvened to establish consensus on decisions during the disaster, which meant that everyone stayed on the same page and knew exactly how to respond and how to help in the situation. The same held true during recovery. Once operations returned to business as usual the following week, a staff meeting was dedicated to going over challenges faced, lessons learned, and how to prepare for future disasters. The following are a few points that were brought up during the meeting:
- Necessity of a change of clothes and close-toed shoes to respond to disaster events
- Necessity of having rubber boots on-hand to respond to standing water
- Rethinking the disaster supply
- Develop a check-out list to document when supplies are used throughout the year
- Staying proactive about periodic restocking
the supplies the Archives didn’t have:
- Additional tarps
- Additional plastic bins
- Potentially also creating ‘to-go’ disaster kits for each vault so that staff don’t need to run across the building to respond to an emergency
- Assigning designated removal locations for impacted records in future disasters
- Scheduling periodic emergency drills and trainings
As of this writing, the process of recovery is still ongoing. The Curator is currently working on an inventory of all of the materials affected during the emergency and will incorporate the lessons learned above into the Archives disaster plan, which was coincidentally being revised when the emergency occurred.