By Deidre McCarthy

Following any disaster, life, health, and safety take precedence and are the immediate focus of first responders. US federal laws require responders to also address the impact of any federal undertakings on cultural resources, consult with states and tribes, and examine cultural resource inventories. Such inventories are indispensable for protecting cultural resources, and their development and maintenance should be part of all disaster preparations. Essential for understanding the resources in danger, inventories speed responses and minimize impacts. The accuracy, currency, and completeness of an inventory determine its utility in identifying resources on the landscape and specifying their importance.

Technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS) provide for accessing data and performing analysis, and they help to coordinate activities—leading to better decisions. The value of that analysis depends on the existence and quality of data. Without an accurate inventory, responders spend valuable time identifying instead of evaluating resources, slowing the response and preventing recovery. Recent disaster responses highlight the shortcomings of current approaches, and evaluating them can lead to improvements.


Floodwaters surrounding homes

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated portions of the US Gulf Coast and created the largest cultural resource disaster in the country since passage of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), inundating historic districts, exposing archaeological sites, and damaging buildings beyond repair.

The NHPA established the National Register of Historic Places and created state and tribal historic preservation offices, which maintain local inventories. The NHPA also requires federal agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to consider the impact of their actions on sites determined eligible for the National Register. Legally, assessing the historic integrity and significance of a resource—and determining whether the disaster or responses will negatively alter that integrity—must occur prior to any federal undertaking.

After Katrina, the National Park Service's Cultural Resources GIS Facility (CRGIS) created a methodology to help FEMA meet its NHPA obligations.1 Using global positioning system (GPS) devices, surveyors located and evaluated properties identified as safety threats, establishing their National Register eligibility. GIS was used to examine the GPS data, assess properties, and record decisions about whether federal actions constituted adverse effects, requiring mitigation to remedy or offset those effects. CRGIS incorporated cultural resource spatial data transfer standards, creating a GIS management tool and promoting data exchange among recovery agencies. Through the methodology, FEMA created a geodatabase of resources incorporating locations, condition, integrity, and National Register eligibility information.

Prior to Katrina, the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) had nineteen thousand resources in its statewide GIS. Following the response, fifty-five thousand resources in the New Orleans area were added. The substantial amount of new data FEMA provided to the SHPO served to mitigate (i.e., offset) demolition of damaged historic resources. Because this data is digital, standardized, and easily shared, all agencies in the area have access to it to prepare for and respond quickly to future disasters.

Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office GIS data
(Left) Screenshot of the original Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office GIS data before Hurricane Katrina. It focuses on New Orleans and historic district boundaries. (Right) Screenshot of the expanded GIS data, including data collected subsequent to Katrina as part of the hurricane response efforts. Images: Courtesy of Cultural Resources GIS Facility, National Park Service.


More recently, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and Hurricane Sandy, which struck the US Northeast in 2012, help illustrate challenges in disaster response and highlight deficiencies in existing inventories. The National Register catalogs over one million resources, while state and tribal inventories catalog over five million. No national standards guide creation of these inventories; they differ in completeness, accuracy, and data format. Most states, tribes, and federal agencies maintain inventories independently and do not coordinate data sharing.

The exchange of data among states after these disasters emphasized differences in data collection and accuracy protocols. National data sets also displayed data inconsistency and variations in quality. These differences prevented data use across jurisdictional boundaries, which is critical during disasters. Without consistent collection methods, data sets may not be integrated because the quality, consistency, scale, and detail are so different. These disasters also demonstrated the need to facilitate faster data exchange, since rapid coordination is essential. Many responders remain unaware that inventories must be consulted. In the Katrina response, as many as seven different agencies visited properties in New Orleans to assess damage, and none collected a location or consulted existing inventories.


Knowledge gained from disasters—which test inventory effectiveness under the worst circumstances—leads to new approaches. Such efforts should begin before a disaster by properly preparing appropriate inventory information in a GIS format. Providing responders with this data delivers a graphical understanding of the location of potential threats and allows for analysis. During this preparation, agencies should create long-term data management, updating, and security plans, as well as allow for adoption of improved technologies to assist in data collection, sharing, and access.

In addition, data should be standardized to permit broad and rapid sharing. For cultural resources to receive consideration following a disaster, inventories must quickly integrate with general response efforts. A group of federal, state, and tribal representatives, led by CRGIS, is creating national cultural resource spatial data transfer standards to facilitate data sharing through the Federal Geographic Data Committee. Establishing data sharing agreements prior to disasters facilitates data exchange and clarifies the roles of parties, which will expedite response. Although broadly sharing data is desirable, data should, of course, be properly used. Documenting data sensitivity, quality, and accuracy helps define its appropriate uses and access parameters.

As technology evolves, cultural resource inventories and their uses will change. But the need to maintain these critical records to accurately identify and protect sites will never change. The ability to access and share information remains central to disaster planning and response. Data standards will ensure that cultural resources are incorporated into disaster preparations and response efforts, leading to efficient evaluation and improved protection of these resources.

Deidre McCarthy works at the Cultural Resources GIS Facility of the National Park Service in Washington, DC, where she assists historic preservation offices and National Park units to integrate GIS and GPS into their preservation activities.

1. CRGIS website, link to the Historic Preservation Response Methodology