Digging Out from Superstorm Sandy

Jan 14, 2013

by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist

When the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) moved more than 200 linear feet of archives to the Department of Special Collections and Archives at Queens College Libraries, we had no idea how fortuitous a decision it would be. In addition to fostering collaboration between SCI, the library and the Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, the move meant the vast majority of SCI’s historical records stayed dry during Superstorm Sandy.

The storm affected SCI as it did many New York and New Jersey residents. Flooding heavily damaged the first floor of the Institute’s International Seafarers’ Center in Port Newark, which—even with the move to Queens College—houses the Institute’s more recent administrative records along with a small collection of maritime art and ship models.

As soon as I could gain access to the ravaged Port Newark Center, I spent several days with coworkers digging through soaked and molding paper, throwing out the unsalvageable and setting aside vital records (like board minutes) to air dry. The salt water, mixed with runoff accumulated during the flooding of the Port, failed to completely wipe out one of the world’s most durable technologies: good old-fashioned paper. Although we lost some items, we saved many others. Thankfully, the cold temperatures of early November helped stabilize deterioration.

The experience in disaster recovery has turned into a learning opportunity both for me and the archivists-in-training at the Library and Information school at Queens College. Professor and Director of Archival Studies Ben Alexander invited me into his Introduction to Archives and Manuscripts class recently to share stories from the storm and discuss strategies for recovery and prevention of similar situations in other repositories.

Since the storm, SCI has gutted the first floor of its Port Newark building and installed new drywall and fresh paint. Despite the damage and lack of power, Internet or heat, seafarers continued using the center just hours after the floodwaters receded, demonstrating the necessity of SCI’s port presence and ministry in all kinds of weather.