Monday, July 23, 2012

When a (Mini) Disaster Strikes

By Erin Doane, Curator  

Normally, I enjoy irony but when I’m on the receiving end of the universe’s sense of humor, I’m not too pleased about it.  The museum just opened up an exhibit on the Flood of ’72 a couple weeks ago and I wrote a blog entry about how to salvage water-damaged items.  So, on the morning of Monday, July 2 when I discovered that our ac unit in collections storage had sprung a leak, I felt like the butt of a cosmic joke.  I don’t think I would have taken it so personally except that a similar thing happened to me at a previous job.  That time I had just completed a disaster response workshop that included salvaging items from a kiddie pool filled with water one week before the plumbing in the men’s room decided to leak into collections storage.  Just a coincidence?  I’m beginning to wonder.

So, just after 9:00 am I walked into textile store to collect the climate information for the past month and was surprised to find puddles of water on the floor.  My first thought, of course, was “oh expletive!”  My next thought was that I’m glad that I’ve been trained in this sort of thing and that the museum has two boxes of supplies collected just for an emergency like this.  I absolutely love it when institutions have disaster plans in place.

A quick perusal of the situation showed that this was only a minor disaster, at worst.  The part of the ac unit that was dripping is mounted on the ceiling above a metal shelving unit containing twenty archival boxes filled with textiles.  Fortunately, the water was coming from a part of the unit that was not directly over the shelves so it only dripped on the floor.  It did splash up, however, and the front edges of four textile storage boxes on the bottom shelf were soggy.  The unit must have dripped all weekend when it was hot and humid. 

I removed the four boxes from storage and brought them into the museum’s conference room.  We are very fortunate to have a space with four large, empty tables.  I’m not sure how I would have laid out the damp items otherwise.  I laid down plastic sheeting from the disaster supply kit and removed the clothing from the wettest of the boxes first.  The water had wicked up through the cardboard and the tissue paper wrapped around a lovely yellow and brown 1870s dress and soaked into where the skirt was folded at the end of the box.  The water went through four layers of fabric but the dress was not soaking wet.  A skirt, a petticoat and the shoulders of another dress from the other three boxes were also slightly damp.  I spread them all out on the tables and brought a fan into the room to circulate the air.  By noon the items were all dry with little sign that they had ever been wet.  The only casualties of this minor disaster were two textile storage boxes that were soaked enough to deform the ends making them useless.  

This mini disaster was caused by a blockage in the drain tube for the ac unit.  The blockage was removed later that day and we haven’t had any trouble since (knock on wood!).  So, I guess one lesson from this experience is to periodically check out the ac unit to make sure everything is running as it should.  Probably the greater lesson is that being prepared can save the day.  The Historical Society has a disaster plan in place that covers emergencies great and small and boxes of supplies ready for when disaster strikes.  The relatively small amount of water from a plugged ac unit was not too difficult to deal with but the potential for other catastrophes is always there.

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