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After the Flood: Rebuilding the Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area

By Aaron Steinmann

In recent months, the sites and communities of Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area, nestled in Northeast Iowa, have weathered Mother Nature’s worst. Just weeks after an F-5 tornado ravaged portions of the Heritage Area, historic floods devastated countless communities during the floodwaters slow trek across the Heritage Area.

While volunteers spent countless hours sandbagging and moving artifacts, in many areas the rising waters could not be tamed. Now that the floodwaters have receded, the true extent of the devastation continues to be uncovered. With all 37 counties of the Heritage Area being declared a Presidential Disaster Area, it’s estimated that one-third of the 106 Silos & Smokestacks partner sites were impacted.

Over two months have passed since the floods and business as usual seems like an unfamiliar concept to many affected by the floods. As some begin the long and challenging process of rebuilding, others sit in limbo unsure of what the future holds.

At Ushers Ferry Historic Village in Cedar Rapids, 34 of the 36 buildings were submerged, with the log cabin being washed downstream. While three buildings have been deemed completely destroyed, limited resources and manpower have hindered full assessment of the damage. Though there is hope to rebuild the village in some capacity, the future currently remains uncertain. Further downstream in Cedar Rapids, the African American Historical Museum & Cultural Center of Iowa and the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library set on opposing banks of the Cedar River yet suffered much the same fate. While buildings were secured and artifacts moved, neither were fully prepared for a crest of 19 feet above flood stage. They join countless others like the Ice House Museum in Cedar Falls in the long process of developing a plan to rebuild.

Nestled along Iowa’s Rivers, the mills of the Heritage Area are no stranger to floods, though 2008 has proven especially tough. To help with assessments and restoration planning, Silos & Smokestacks and the Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance hosted Trillium Dell Timberworks of Knoxville, IL on a tour of Wapsipinicon Mill, Independence; Motor Mill, Elkader; and Potters Mill, Bellevue. Like many historic structures, the Wapsi Mill had never had the opportunity for an expert in timber framing to evaluate the mill. It’s hoped this will provide a starting point for continued preservation for these remnants of Iowa’s history.

During and after the flood, the unity of the Heritage Area has continually been shown as partner sites work to help each other. The unaffected Brucemore Historic Site in Cedar Rapids setup their Garden House as preservation headquarters for teams of out-of-town professionals, and the Iowa Masonic Library & Museum is currently housing staff from the African American Historical Museum along with a mini exhibit. While buildings have been devastated and many artifacts lost, the true story of the Heritage Area, which lies in the communities and people of the region, will continue.

A disaster relief fund has been established to help in the recovery and rebuilding efforts for the region. Checks may be sent to:

Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area

SSNHA Save Our History Fund

PO Box 2845 Waterloo, IA 50704-2845

Featured thumbnail and photo by Dusty Allen Smith on Flickr

Saving heirlooms from storm damage

Tropical storms and other flood events are often termed disasters because of injuries, fatalities and the destruction of homes and businesses. Part of the disaster is the loss of family heirlooms.

“I am saddened by the stories of people who have lost so much from floods and storms,” said National Park Service Director Mary A. Bomar. “We learn about their stories of survival in the news but also hear about damage to a lifetime of memories – the loss of personal heirlooms is devastating.”

Director Bomar said, “The National Park Service has been at the forefront in the effort to save, preserve and protect America’s treasures for nearly a century. We have tips available from our conservation and preservation experts for people who will be able to save family heirlooms before disaster strikes. And we have tips for how to deal with flood-damaged items.”

The National Park Service, along with other members of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force, produced a public service announcement video to help families. It is available on-line.

The following tips are adapted from the Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel produced by Heritage Preservation in support of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force.

Preparation before flooding:
Avoid storing family heirlooms in the basement, which is likely to flood.

Evacuate heirlooms, such as family photo albums, when possible–otherwise, place in closets or rooms without windows on upper floors.


Response and recovery after flooding:
Even if they are completely soaked, family treasures can probably be saved, if they are not contaminated with sewage or chemicals. Work on high priority items first.

Freeze books, paper, textiles, and most photographs that cannot be cleaned and dried within 48 hours to prevent mold. Interleave with freezer or waxed paper, if possible. Consult a conservator before freezing metal, plate glass, paintings, some photographs, and furniture.

Photographs: Rinse with cool, clean water, as necessary. Hang with clips on non-image areas or lay flat on absorbent paper.

Books: If rinsing is necessary, hold book closed. If partially wet or damp, stand on top or bottom edge with cover open to 90-degree angle and air dry.

Paper: Air dry flat as individual sheets or small piles up to 1/4″. Interleave with paper and replace interleaving when damp. Do not unfold/separate individual wet sheets.

Textiles: Rinse, drain and blot with clean towels/cotton sheets. Block and shape to original form. Air dry using air conditioning/fans. Do not unfold delicate fabrics. Do not stack wet textiles.

Furniture: Rinse/sponge surfaces gently to clean. Blot. Air dry slowly. If paint is blistered or flaking, air dry slowly without removing dirt or moisture. Hold veneer in place with weights while drying.  Separate the weights from the veneer with a protective layer. Upholstery: Rinse. Remove separate pieces, such as cushions and removable seats. Wrap in cloth to air dry and replace cloth when damp.

Framed paintings: Carefully remove from frames in dry area. Keep paintings horizontal, paint side up, elevated on blocks. Avoid direct sunlight.

Framed art on paper or photographs with glass fronts:  Remove from frames, unless art is stuck to glass. Dry slowly, image-side up with nothing touching the image surface. If art sticks to glass, leave it in frame and dry glass-side down.

If a precious item is badly damaged, a conservator can help. For guidelines on selecting a conservator, visit the American Institute for Conservation site.

Featured thumbnail courtesy of CR Artist on Flickr



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