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A Conversation On Disaster Planning And Historic Preservation

Interview with Lisa Craig &

John Ketchum

Federal Preservation Officer, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Lisa Craig:

Good morning, John. Let's go ahead and just start out with who you are, what your work is at FEMA, and maybe a little bit of your background. How the heck did you end up as a preservationist or becoming a preservationist in this position as the federal preservation officer for FEMA?

John Ketchum:

I’ve been FEMA’s Federal Preservation Officer since 2001. I came to FEMA in 1996 and served under my predecessor, who was FEMA’s first Federal Preservation Officer. FEMA, after significant disasters in the late 1980s and early 1990s, began to recognize that they needed to address their historic preservation compliance responsibilities under Section 106 and Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act. As a result, I had the benefit of working within FEMA as we built up our compliance responsibilities. It's been a journey that has involved our headquarters offices, our 10 regional offices, and then our State Historic, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer counterparts, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and many others in the historic preservation community, as well as our State and Tribal Emergency Management counterparts. I'm a native of Washington, DC. I worked in the nonprofit world in art conservation and collections management before coming to FEMA. As a result, I saw the importance of networks, public-private partnerships. How do we ensure that Congress recognizes the implications of museum collections library and archival collections being protected and preserved? What are conservation measures that the public can take to protect their family heirlooms in the aftermath of a disaster?

Here we are in 2021, and the climate crisis is very much front and center. For historic properties and cultural resources, it’s going to be critical that they are included in the consideration and the calculus that local, state territorial and tribal officials are evaluating and ensuring that when it comes time to projects moving forward, that our cultural patrimony, our historic properties are also included. That's a conversation that cultural resource managers and others within local government have to have. What is critical here is ensuring that the public understands what this debate is intended for, and how their voices will be heard. It's important that the cultural resource community reconciles itself that perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. There may be damage or even loss of historic resources as a result of climate change, but if we sit back and do nothing, the impact will be catastrophic.


Do you have some examples of working with FEMA’s cultural resource managers and their counterparts, emergency management staff, state hazard mitigation offices and the like? Puerto Rico is an unfortunately disaster prone community with such wonderful resources: archaeological, cultural, and historic. To your point about the partnerships, working at the local level and engaging with the public – can you share some examples of that?


The recovery effort in Puerto Rico has moved so slowly, that it’s only now that complex recovery projects are being presented to FEMA for funding. We’ll be working over the next several months to develop programmatic approaches to historic preservation compliance for those undertakings. There will be opportunities in those consultation efforts that could lead to longer lasting and more effective relationships. As a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there have been significant advancements in Louisiana. There's been a significant maturation of the relationship with the State Historic Preservation Office, as well as local preservation forces, particularly in New Orleans, and recognizing that all of these agencies and organizations need to work more closely together to protect the historic properties and cultural resources throughout the state. A statewide programmatic agreement was just executed by FEMA. It provides a framework and roadmap for consideration and review of FEMA-funded elevations of historic homes throughout the state and ensures that appropriate design guidelines are anticipated and being established early on in the project formulation phase. That’s in a Section 106 context,

Like politics, all preservation ultimately is local. In order for a dialogue to gain traction and result in substantive progress, it takes local commitment. FEMA can help encourage movement in a productive direction, but the heavy lifting is going to come down to that local community. As a result of my 106 responsibility, I look at this as an opportunity to ensure that meaningful consultation, where you're seeking, considering and acting upon a consensus to ensure that historic properties and cultural resources receive the timely and appropriate attention that they deserve as part of mitigation planning. We have to recognize that once these resources are gone, they're gone forever. And not to make light of other critical infrastructures, such as a school or a hospital, but those are facilities that can be replaced. That is not the case with cultural patrimony.


I appreciate your understanding of the cultural patrimony in and of itself as critical infrastructure to communities, particularly as we're working more with coastal communities who have a very strong heritage tourism base to their economy. Just look at what's going on right now with COVID and the loss of that major industry to understand what is at stake in regards to not having greater resilience or preparedness in those communities for economic shifts. What guidance would you give to State Historic Preservation Officers and the state hazard mitigation offices about working together, and how to encourage it at the local level?


I depend upon ongoing and newly developed relationships to ensure that the consideration of historic properties is occurring as early as possible when FEMA funding is being provided to eligible applicants. Personal relationships that have been built up between State Historic and state emergency management agency officials are tremendous assets over the long term. One of the pieces in that relationship blossoming is an education process and an opportunity for a State Historic Preservation Officer to sit down with their state emergency management counterpart and say, “Tell me all about the hazard mitigation assistance programs that I would be eligible for, cultural resources and historic properties would be eligible for, and what is the framework for identifying particular projects and consideration of those projects.” The homework that the cultural resource community could do would pay enormous dividends. But it's a two-way street, and state emergency management officials, particularly those that focus on hazard mitigation, need to understand the mission and objectives of cultural resource stewards. The work that has occurred through forums, such as History Above Water, in the last several years, bringing together a variety of stakeholders that can network in order to continue these conversations. On the cultural resource side, there are forums known as Alliance for Response where emergency officials and first responders spend a day at a cultural institution in a large urban area with their cultural resource counterparts getting to know one another. Those are just such invaluable opportunities to build relationships with our counterparts, and it would be great to expand those networks. There are conversations that need to occur at a policy level amongst federal, state, local tribal officials, but much of this requires the support of the public. There need to be thoughtful strategies that are developed and implemented to attract public support with the best of the public relations and outreach expertise involved.


FEMA does work very hard on communicating risk, ensuring that they are using the correct terminology, ensuring that they are speaking with the public in ways that are helpful, sharing information and common language. I've worked with some of the hazard mitigation officers and private consultants brought in from Ogilvy and other PR firms to assist FEMA, so kudos to FEMA for that. I spoke recently with a state hazard mitigation officer in Massachusetts who said, “People are going to have to understand that they may need to retreat, that they may need to abandon the resource.” We know there are many older historic districts that have not done intensive level survey work, let alone documentation on some of our most important historic resources in these vulnerable flood areas. How do we come to that recognition? Are there approaches that are programmatic? Do we start thinking about PAs and writing them for future conditions versus just what we're doing in terms of elevating the building and the design strategies?


We do have situations where a programmatic approach to a Section 106 review will result in opportunities to resolve adverse effects with alternative treatment measures. On a case-by-case basis, FEMA is committed to exploring and pursuing such measures. This requires leadership coming from the White House, as well as agencies such as the National Park Service Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. We’ll see in the new Biden administration, what the commitment looks like, in regards to policy issues such as these. It cannot be one agency alone, and it certainly cannot be FEMA on its own that is doing the trailblazing here. There are going to be some historic properties that fare better than others in a decision process regarding what critical resources are the most critical resources. I realize that's fraught with all sorts of implications, but if we continue just to say this is very difficult for us, we're going to kick it down the road for another administration to grapple with. I think you know that and others know that, and I really am cautiously hopeful that we are about to embark upon some very active and creative conversations. They will be painful at times, and there will be those that feel that resources that are near and dear to them have been given short shrift, but the alternative is cataclysmic.


Opportunity is something that we want to put focus on with this next administration. The fact that we can actually use the term climate change and not have to look over our shoulder is a very important component. Just language itself is public awareness, adaptation alternative as we look at it. One thing in that regard is this is a new area of our field in preservation and there are particular skill sets. If you were to give some guidance to those who may be early on in their careers in historic preservation, what would you advise, what might be skill sets, some of the knowledge, the trainings that some of these up and coming preservationists should really consider?


To begin with, strong interpersonal and diplomacy and negotiation skills are crucial. Being able to provide a succinct defense of your resources to those in the emergency management community is essential as well. This is something Lisa, you have always impressed me, that you took the time and made the effort to really ensure that you understood and were intimately familiar with the nitty gritty of the requirements for hazard mitigation assistance. Certainly, some of that can come from working closely with your hazard mitigation counterparts. It can come from taking online training. There also is hopefully the opportunity in the near term for classroom training to return to our Emergency Management Institute, EMI in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and being able to take advantage of those curricula that focus on hazard mitigation. That is a key to being able to communicate intelligently and recognize where is the greatest potential for pursuing federal assistance and not being caught in a very frustrating situation where you feel as if the federal bureaucracy at its worst is working against you. There's some personal attributes there; there's the ability to process and consume information quickly and also have an advocate or advocates within the emergency management community that will effectively be able to articulate and represent your interests when it comes time for project prioritization, because they're going to be situations where those in the room are the emergency management community. And you may not, as a cultural resource steward, have the ability to do anything but depend on those in the room to referee. It’s a two way street, and where I've seen the most effective partnerships is where there is a collaborative relationship at a personal level and then at an organizational level between the cultural community and the emergency management community.


What changes are needed to Preservation Law? What do we need to know about as a preservation community to be informed enough and advocate on lobby day? What do we need to know about what legislative updates, thoughts about this next session and what to be looking for or what to be supporting that will benefit communities facing disasters with a strong resource base?


One piece that I would like to see, and I don't know if it necessarily would require legislative action, but I think it's perhaps more within FEMA’s direct domain and that is the National Risk Index that FEMA just published last week. That catalogues the vulnerabilities for 18 different types of natural disasters and ranks communities across the country. It's a tremendous start as a risk assessment, and how amazing would it be if that also included cultural resources and properties? We have an opportunity here based on where some individuals are positioned within my agency. Looking strategically for who is in a particular position to advance these causes, you're a master of it. It's going to take some preparatory work, and I am cautiously optimistic that there are more progressive forces within just our agency that we will be able to, in the best sense of the word, take advantage and capitalize upon.

Going back to what historic significance means is something that the historic preservation community is going to have to wrestle with. I don't see any way around having to reopen statute and regulations that have been applied for quite some time. Or I see nibbling around the edges on this. I realize that there may be some who are not enthusiastic about that at the federal level. Some states are making these decisions that will allow for a certain level of review that has more flexibility. There are local governments that are trying to come up with design guidance or toolkits to better inform their community of shared values, including historic preservation. If the federal government is going to be MIA, it needs to convey that. My fear is that the federal government is going to catch up in three or four years, and pull the rug out efforts that have already been accomplished at the state and local level. There needs to be more leadership here in Washington on this, and for advocacy organizations, such as the [National] Trust, this is their moment. There are many more leadership positions that the Biden administration will be moving forward on. It will be interesting to see who’s going to lead the Park Service, who will be the chairperson at the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation now that the position is full time. What a wonderful opportunity for someone in that position to take on leadership in this realm.


I agree completely. I'm going to leave it on a positive note: we have a lot of opportunities ahead. In this next four years and it's up to us to capitalize on them, no matter where we sit in the public or the private sector.

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