There’s no question that the recent Haiti earthquake was one of the most significant human disasters in our generation. Seeing the miles of destroyed buildings has also brought back memories of our own disaster, Hurricane Katrina. Obviously, there are many emergency situations in Haiti that are of more immediate importance right now, but a longer-range issue that we’re concerned with as preservationists is the state of remaining historic buildings and cultural resources.
At first, it looked like a hopeless situation and I thought maybe no historic landmarks were left standing. But then I remembered that right after Katrina went through, Governor Barbour said in his press conference that “Beauvoir is destroyed” and that “Bay St. Louis is completely gone.” Both of those were over-statements, but the way we found that out was by going down there and surveying the damage to the historic districts one building at a time. Once the situation in Haiti gets to the point that we historic types won’t be in the way, the same thing needs to happen there so that we can find the landmarks that can be saved and begin to commit the resources to help save them.
The National Trust blog has posted a wealth of information recently (“Destruction in Haiti Puts its Heritage at Risk“) telling what is currently known about Haitian landmarks complete with pictures. Here’s a snippet, but I hope you’ll check out the whole thing:
It is tempting in the face of such widespread damage to bulldoze everything and start over. That is the fear that international heritage preservation organizations share with Haitian heritage conservation professionals. While in some cases there may be few other options, many opportunities should exist to preserve the unique culture and character of Haiti represented in its built environment through careful assessment, salvage, restoration, and reconstruction. Support for this work, particularly the initial stage of damage assessment, is currently being organized by heritage conservation organizations in the United States and internationally.
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At the request of Haitian conservation authorities and in cooperation with UNESCO, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) is currently taking the lead in coordinating international efforts to assist with assessment and recovery of damage to Haiti’s immovable cultural heritage. ICOMOS President Gustavo Araoz has announced that an initial cultural mission is expected to be on the ground in Haiti in early February. The United States National Committee of ICOMOS (US/ICOMOS) will be coordinating U.S. participation in assessments and recovery lead by ICOMOS and UNESCO. Information will be available at www.usicomos.org.
Our own Mississippi Coast benefited from the dedicated and selfless work of volunteer architects, engineers, architectural historians, and conservators from several national and state organizations, including the Association for Preservation Technology, the National Trust, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Texas Historical Commission. We can’t ever repay those people for the many historic buildings they helped save on our Gulf Coast, but we can volunteer to help other places that have experienced disaster and damage to their cultural treasures.