Disaster Planning for Lighthouses

Stewardship of historic American lighthouses is a serious responsibility. The latest generation of lighthouse keepers has been entrusted with timeworn and often fragile structures that often serve less as navigational aids than as beacons to the past, shining light on the nation’s rich and colorful maritime history.

Maintenance is hard enough. Preservation is harder, requires more study and planning, and must be done with painstaking care. But stewardship also requires something more – thinking the unthinkable, and planning for it.

Lighthouses were put in harm’s way. That’s almost a matter of definition; the towers not only marked landfalls and passages, they were placed as warnings of danger and quite often stand in locations fully exposed to storm waves and other hazards. American lighthouses have been swept away by tsunamis, destroyed by hurricanes, toppled by erosion, gutted by fire, even targeted by weapons of war. Somewhere, the unthinkable already has happened. Responsible stewardship includes asking the question, “What would we do if it happened here?”

That question also marks the start of disaster planning. There is no single checklist-driven approach; there is too wide a variety of lighthouses, and of the groups taking care of them. There are solitary towers and entire light stations; locations on military and especially Coast Guard bases, in parks, on government or private property; lighthouses in cities and offshore; lighthouses with and without museums, staffs or even visitors. The differences affect planning, priorities and response capabilities. But in every case it is essential to plan.

What follows is a very basic outline approach to that process, a guide to process and considerations that can shape the disaster plan that each lighthouse group should have. The American Lighthouse Coordinating Committee urges lighthouse stewards to complete and update station-specific disaster plans, and to rehearse them with staff.

You do not want to be improvising in the wake of disaster. Good disaster planning not only can speed recovery, it can minimize loss by adding efficiency to disaster response. Perhaps most importantly, it can increase safety for staff and visitors alike.

(This outline draws on experience with Local Emergency Preparedness Committees and materials developed by the Heritage Emergency National Task Force, the American Association for State and Local History and the Council of American Maritime Museums. A resources list is at the end of this outline.)

Planning for Catastrophes

Disaster planning includes consideration of three stages: preparation, response and recovery.


  1. Start with a risk assessment. Risk is the sum of danger and exposure – a Great Lakes lighthouse at water level may be in more danger of destruction by tidal wave than a seacoast light high on a promontory, but the risk is almost nil because exposure to tsunamis is vanishingly small in the inland seas. What’s your greatest risk – are you on a hurricane coast, in an earthquake zone, on a bluff susceptible to erosion-caused landslides? Then prioritize. Some elements of disaster planning will be similar, but tailor your approach to the greatest probabilities. Most of the recommendations in this outline assume some sort of water damage, the most likely risk.
  2. Inventory: Know what you have, and what you’re responsible for. Document and photograph your collections – you should be doing this for insurance purposes anyway – and be sure to note locations. And don’t forget to inventory your organizational records, too.
  3. Duplicate: Redundancy can be invaluable, especially in the wake of sudden events with widespread destruction. Store the second set of inventory and archived records in a secure off-site location.
  4. Contact Lists: Know who to call. Start by identifying first responders near your site, and talk to them to let them know what special conditions may exist at your site and discuss what types of responses might be least damaging to historic buildings or artifacts. Review your site’s fire and security systems while you’re at it. Then make a list of recovery firms and conservation experts you might need to contact quickly to try to curtail damage and deterioration. Post these lists, and make sure key personnel have copies.
  5. Write a Disaster Plan: Carefully think through your needs in a variety of scenarios, and use a guide like this one or advice from the sources noted at the end of this outline to put it all down on paper (you can use a word file, too, of course, but printed copies work better during widespread power outages). Know your shelter and medical treatment options. Don’t make the plan overly complex – think of it as “KISS your lighthouse goodbye,” remembering the famous presidential campaign advice to “keep it simple, stupid.” Once it’s written, file it where it’s easily retrievable, make sure staff not only knows where it is but reads it, and then talk through or rehearse it.
  6. Staff Preparedness: Assess personnel, evaluate strengths and weaknesses and assign response priorities – who focuses on securing the site, who works on evacuating people, who secures or moves artifacts, who saves the paperwork, etc. Make sure everyone knows their jobs, and make sure they know their secondary responsibilities as well. Overlap, to assure responsibilities are covered if some staff members are absent. Make sure everyone knows the chain of command – who’s in charge, who decides, who’s the backup if someone isn’t available. Look for training opportunities for staff members, and have at least basic equipment – hard hats, gloves, safety glasses and other protective and medical gear – in stock before disaster strikes.


Response to disaster warnings will vary depending on how much time you have, which can be anywhere from days (developing hurricanes) to no advance notice at all (earthquakes). The amount of time can greatly affect damage, and will determine when you transition from response/reaction to recovery.

The cardinal rule: People first. If you have time, evacuate visitors immediately, lock down and evacuate staff. If you don’t, get people into shelter and/or treat those who need medical help.

Advance Notice: Move and/or secure artifacts (for example, away from windows or off floors likely to flood). Put up storm shutters or use plywood and screws to cover windows (consider stocking fitted and easily affixed storm panes for lantern rooms to protect optics), or tape windows. Wrap threatened artifacts or displays with plastic and tape. Move or secure outdoor objects if possible.

Shut off utilities (if security systems have battery backup). If there’s time, remove artifacts and paperwork, especially personnel and organizational records and historic ephemera, to a more secure location. Prioritize: key organizational documents, materials on loan from other collections, materials important to your core mission, etc.

Immediate Aftermath: Attend to injuries or evacuations. Safety issues come first – look for downed power lines or overhead threats such as damaged roofs, shattered glass or broken tree limbs. Mark them, and alert other on-site personnel. Shut off damaged utilities. Do not turn on utilities or enter damaged buildings until they have been assessed by qualified responders.

Assign pairs of workers to tasks. Don’t work alone.

Collect and save artifacts and structural pieces if safe to do so. Document locations, to aid in recovery of other lost materials dispersed by wind or water.

Determine whether an off-site staging area is needed for reasons of safety or storage security. Attend to repairs of on-site security systems.

Appoint a media liaison, and assign someone to make and document immediate insurance contacts and to continue to act as an insurance contact point.


Research your needs, assess your own capabilities and determine what help is needed. Differentiate between, identify and clearly designate damaged historical and non-historical resources. Begin to document all your response and recovery efforts, as a key part of your site’s continuing history.

Site Condition: Do a careful reassessment of your entire site, especially identifying any hazardous materials that need special work. Identify structural hazards, and brace as required. Buy needed supplies as early as possible, and arrange for freezers or a refrigerator truck to stop the deterioration of fragile, soaked or otherwise damaged paper or textiles. The cardinal rule for this stage is Do No More Harm. Unless your staff has qualified, capable and experienced conservators, seek expert help immediately.

Buildings: Reduce temperature and humidity to forestall or control mold development. DO NOT use forced super-dry ventilation in historic structures; air dry where possible. Cover broken windows. Remove standing water (in badly flooded basements, pump dry ONLY after an engineering assessment that the foundation walls have not been compromised). In non-historic buildings, arrange for commercial dehumidification if needed. Check daily for mold.

Lenses: For anything beyond routine cleaning, seek professional conservation help from qualified lens specialists. At the early stages of responding to extreme lens damage, gather fragments (including documenting location) and carefully store with labels until restoration can begin in a controlled environment.

Artifacts: Inspect and document, with photos, before moving. Document all insurance contacts and staff decisions. Collect and label all recoverable pieces, including where found. Again, prioritize conservation efforts.

Ephemera: Do No More Harm. Separate non-historic materials that can simply be replicated from historical resources that should be saved. Do your technical research – different types of materials require different approaches. Photos often can be rinsed and air-dried, for example, but printed materials often cannot, and some but not all materials might withstand emergency vacuum freeze-drying. In general, freezing can stabilize compromised material and forestall mold, but get expert help as soon as possible.


This basic outline is only a general guide. More detailed resources should be consulted in the creation of a clear and detailed disaster plan that is site-specific (including, for example, preferred safe site-access routes).

An excellent set of disaster-planning materials has been developed by Heritage Preservation in support of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force, a partnership of 41 government agencies and national service organizations co-sponsored by Heritage Preservation and FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Especially helpful is a spiral-bound “Field Guide to Emergency Response” for cultural institutions, which includes an instructional DVD and can be purchased in conjunction with a quick-reference Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel for about $35. See www.heritagepreservation.org or www.heritageemergency.org .

Facilities that include museums or museum displays can benefit from the extensive disaster planning guidelines developed by the Council of American Maritime Museums. See www.

The American Association for State and Local History has a technical leaflet titled, “Disaster Planning, Preparedness and Recovery: A Resource Guide” that lists a wide range of online resources, publications covering various types of disasters including earthquakes, fire, floods, hurricanes, pests and even volcanos, as well as a list of other related technical leaflets, all distributed through the organization’s publication, History News. For information, see www.aaslh.org .