Among the millions watching in horror as Paris’s Notre-Dame burned on April 15 were caretakers of Atlanta’s historic cathedrals and a group of volunteers who help cultural institutions recover from disaster.

Buckhead’s Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King doesn’t have the 800-year history and global stature of Notre-Dame. But it’s the mother church of the Atlanta Archdiocese and home to eight decades of records of births, baptisms and marriages.

The Archdiocese preserves and protects its historic documents and artifacts in a Smyrna facility. Angelique Richardson, the director of archives and records at the Archdiocese, says that seeing the Notre-Dame fire got her office thinking.

“It did occur to us to send out a memo to our parishes,” she said. The message: “We are here to archive your historical records.”

An image from a May 2019 HERA video about how the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University recovered from a flood.

Of course, archives, libraries and museums can succumb to disaster, too. That point was hammered home by another recent fire, the 2018 blaze that destroyed much of the National Museum of Brazil. Richardson is among the cultural institution experts involved in the Heritage Emergency Response Alliance (HERA) Atlanta, a local chapter of a national movement that aims to prevent such disasters and to provide expert advice on salvaging treasures when they do happen.

“It’s all about making connections and providing resources,” says Christine Wiseman, head of the Digital Services Department at the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library, and a founding steering committee member of HERA Atlanta. The group has helped Georgia institutions recover from such disasters as last year’s Hurricane Michael.

In metro Atlanta, religious buildings typically meet modern fire codes, though a church can present unique maintenance challenges. Rev. Samuel Candler, the dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip in Buckhead, is among those who deal with such challenges.

“At the Cathedral of St. Philip, we definitely have sprinklers and modern fire safety equipment installed, throughout our older and newer facilities,” Candler said in a written statement. “But the Notre-Dame fire reminds all of us that the stewardship and maintenance of large cathedrals, and of all sacred destinations, requires constant support and energy. We do not apologize for spending money, and time, and energy, and resources daily in the stewardship of these sacred destinations, and it is our honor and mission to do so. … We know that the Church is people, but we also know that we people are inspired and moved by physical spaces, sacred destinations, that gather our prayers and inspire our prayers.”

For many churches, internal records are the main documents to preserve and they’re often stored in a fireproof safe. Truly historic records and artifacts may find a safer home, such as the Catholic Archdiocese’s Office of Archives and Records. That facility has temperature and humidity controls and a fire suppression system, according to the Archdiocese. It houses such objects as chalices, vestments and ceremonial swords, and historical documents going back to early Catholic settlers of the 1820s, according to Richardson.

But even a well-prepared museum or library can succumb to a major storm, fire or other disaster. Efforts toward larger-scale, inter-institutional planning date back to the 1990s, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a nonprofit called Heritage Preservation formed the Heritage Emergency National Task Force in the wake of a major hurricane and earthquake, with the goal of providing expertise and assistance to cultural organizations.

A similar, more localized program called the Alliance for Response started up in 2003. The destruction in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 showed the need for such programs, says Wiseman of HERA Atlanta.

“It’s really grown out of Katrina,” she said.

HERA Atlanta formed in 2007. It’s still an informal group of institutional volunteers with about 125 members from the metro area and, increasingly, statewide. Buckhead’s Atlanta History Center and Brookhaven’s Oglethorpe University are among the institutions that have been represented in the group over the years. In times of major disaster, the group can use the Georgia Emergency Management Agency’s communication resources to coordinate advice or volunteer help for damaged cultural institutions.

In 2008, HERA Atlanta got an early test. A tornado hit downtown Atlanta. Among the damaged structures was the historic building housing the Atlanta Daily World, the city’s oldest African American newspaper.

“We saw them as a cultural site,” said Wiseman. “So we actually gathered a whole bunch of volunteers and spent a couple days packing out records for them.”

Today, HERA Atlanta holds educational programs once or twice year, such as a recent case study of a potentially disastrous flood at Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum. And it continues to provide advice to institutions in need, such as the Albany Museum of Art, which suffered major wind and flooding damage in a 2017 storm.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.