Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi, Mississippi, was in the design phase. It was to be located in a surge tide area 50 yards from the waterfront at the Gulf of Mexico. As the security representative on the design team, I suggested numerous safeguards, such as moving security equipment to attic levels and installing hurricane glass. I also argued for the sidewalks connecting the multibuilding site to be smooth, since, in the event of a hurricane, artifacts would have to be placed on carts and evacuated. The movement of fragile items in open carts over cobblestones or a boardwalk can cause damage under the best of conditions, let alone during the onslaught of a storm.

The Ohr-O’Keefe was one year short of its three-year completion date when Katrina hit. Two of the four buildings under construction were crushed by a casino barge that was thrust onto land by the storm. The historic building at the site, the Pleasant Reed house, was completely washed away, save its chimney.

The Ohr-O’Keefe’s experience helps to drive home an important point for museums: While art thefts grab headlines, they are not the most debilitating threats to art institutions—disasters are. A stolen work of art can be recovered, and a vandalized item has a good chance of being repaired by skillful conservators, but an object destroyed by a fire is lost forever.

Unfortunately, architects, museum directors, and their boards tend to ignore risks when building exhibit spaces. Their focus is on aesthetics. They commission famous architects to construct buildings that will themselves be works of art. Functionality, security, and safety take a back seat to design.

As a result, museums built in hurricane-prone areas do not use glazed glass that is rated up to 180 miles per hour against small-missile impact. Skylights are used in areas vulnerable to earthquakes and tropical storms. Storage rooms housing art worth billions of dollars are not built to withstand the impact of heavy weather in areas where hurricanes, tropical storms, and twisters are prevalent. Security control rooms and collection storage areas are often relegated to basements, the first place water seeps in.

A further problem is that cities delegate land for new museums based on availability, not safety. That’s one reason why every few years we see a major museum built on a floodplain, within a surge-tide zone, or in an area prone to flash flooding. It’s also why the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum will be rebuilt at the same flood-prone site despite the risks; that is the land it has. It is not the worst site I have seen; one relatively large regional museum is the sea wall.

As someone who has served on many architectural design teams of museums-in- the-making, I argue for improved security and disaster mitigation. I am usually unsuccessful. The result is that security professionals must accept flawed environments and adapt to policies and procedures as best they can—usually with insufficient operating budgets. The key is planning and practice.


Any security department that does not have a disaster preparedness plan, or does not encourage those in their organization responsible for emergency response to developing one, is derelict in its duty. It is not difficult to find guidance. A Google search on the words “disaster plan” will pinpoint scores of references to samples and templates, which can be modified for just about any environment.

The first step in drawing up a plan is identifying potential disasters. There is little sense planning for a flood if the museum is on a mountaintop. After assessing plausible risks, determine the criticality of each one. Criticality deals with the ultimate ramifications of any event. A fire in a house museum, such as the home of a former president, could destroy the most important artifact in the collection—the home itself—while in a modern museum building dedicated to that president, a fire might not be as critical. Assessing risks and criticality helps allocate limited resources.


Once risks are assessed, countermeasures can be developed. They should range from dealing with small disturbances to the 100-year flood. A list should be made of possible countermeasures that will prevent or minimize loss or damage. I prefer to chart these on a matrix. I often find one countermeasure overlaps and applies to several possible disaster scenarios.

It can be difficult to prioritize risks and countermeasures, particularly when resources are limited. Museums by nature present an unusual situation. Corporations can pinpoint items to secure or evacuate, such as cash or critical records, many of which can be digitized and backed up off-site. In contrast, a museum is a glorified warehouse where everything is either valuable, important, or both. Many items are one-of-a-kind, priceless, or symbolic, and their loss would be unacceptable. So when major disasters emerge, museums must be able to implement multifaceted countermeasures.


Evacuating endangered items is an obvious countermeasure, but it is not always the safest option. Moving art and artifacts can be more damaging than leaving them in the building. Nevertheless, evacuation of a collection is the only option in situations such as fires, and nearly all museums perform a form of triage by identifying which art is to be taken away first.

Since many museums affix art to walls using security screws or special brackets to prevent theft, removal is more complex than merely hoisting the object off a nail; it’s an operation requiring time and the right tools. Likewise, many items are fragile and have to be handled one at a time or, at best, by the cartload. Having special tools and carts on hand is part of disaster planning. But museums must not leave them unsecured in gallery closets lest they are stolen before they can serve their purpose.

In the case of off-site evacuation, it is necessary to identify secure locations for storage in advance. Some museums work out all of the logistical and legal issues needed to store items at nearby museums as part of a mutual-aid program. Another alternative within a large institution is lateral evacuation to another part of the building—ideally on the other side of a firewall.

Few museums rehearse the removal and evacuation of collections, a fact that cannot always be attributed to negligence. I once worked for a museum that was open every day of the year save Christmas. Even a fire evacuation drill was virtually impossible to conduct without creating a risk greater than the benefit. To add reality to the exercise by having dozens of people carrying reproductions out the doors would have been unacceptable.


In planning for evacuations, another risk must be taken into consideration: theft. When an alarm sounds in a museum and thousands of people head for the exits, including exits that are not staffed, parcel control is totally lost. In addition, volunteers are often the only way a museum can move thousands of items on display or in storage, and it is often impossible to know whether these people are trustworthy. Any rehearsal or training for an evacuation of collections is best carried out in a manner that trains key museum staff members to supervise and manage the evacuation process in a safe and secure manner.


Part of the planning process is making sure that adequate supplies will be on hand in an emergency. While it’s hard to know how long supplies will be needed, a rule of thumb is about seven days for a noncatastrophic hurricane, while a snow emergency would require a much shorter duration. Services. Precise planning also means having arrangements in place for backup services and contingencies. For instance, if a museum is in a hurricane-prone area, it should contract for a service to board up the museum whenever hurricane alerts require that action. Similarly, arrangements for the use of rental trucks on short notice should be set up so there is no delay when time is of the essence.

In addition, museums should have large amounts of cash readily available so that supplies can be purchased when ATM machines stop working. Liability and insurance issues should be worked out ahead of time, with the help of a lawyer. Plans should be laid out for the ongoing financial health of the institution in the aftermath of a disaster.

It is advisable to have ongoing retainers with service providers and/or agreements with emergency-response firms. As a service provider, I have had prearranged pacts with clients in hurricane country to be at their doorstep during emergencies. During Hurricane Hugo in 1989, I hopped on a plane to perform such a service for two museums that requested my presence in anticipation of being short-staffed.


It’s also important to make sure that equipment will actually perform as intended in clutch situations. I learned this the hard way. I once bought expensive WetVacs, or industrial vacuums, as part of my museum’s disaster-supply inventory, only to find during their initial usage that their size made them too heavy to pick up and empty in the janitorial sinks. When I really needed them, they were of no help.


Another issue is how security personnel will be affected by the crisis. This was an issue during the Hurricane Katrina flooding when New Orleans police officers abandoned their posts in droves. As a former police officer who had to remain on duty while my own loved ones were evacuating amidst urban riots, I was empathetic to the Louisiana officers’ worries over their families and homes. But the lesson is that security managers must plan how they will ensure that their own staffs can report for duty.

The disaster plans my company writes for clients have a provision where each security officer must provide his or her personal strategy for dealing with family matters during an areawide catastrophe. Each officer is asked to indicate several evacuation locations where family members can be sent and to provide phone numbers and addresses where they can be reached. These data and the plan itself must be reviewed and updated periodically.

Our disaster plan also alerts family members to problems that might arise, such as failing cell phones or power outages, and we try to explain to them what preparing for the worst means in real life: gassing the car, securing the house, obtaining cash, evacuating early, and staying in touch.

When disaster strikes, a supervisor or administrative-level employee is assigned to verify that the family members are safe, and officers are notified so that they can remain on duty with peace of mind. It is recommended that museums maintain an adequate supply of food, water, cots, and other amenities for officers who are asked to stay in the building. The amount of supplies depends on the threat. In Chicago, we were worried about snowstorms or transit strikes, so supplies covering a few days were considered sufficient. For an event like Hurricane Katrina, supplies lasting as long as a couple of weeks would be recommended.


Once there is a plan, everyone in the organization responsible for its implementation must be made aware of it, no matter how minimal his or her involvement. If the cultural property is fortunate enough to avoid natural disasters over a long period of time, the plan cannot be forgotten. It needs to be dusted off, reread, and revised to cope with changing situations and new threats.

Part of the process is educating the staff regarding potential disasters. In my days as the security director for a major museum, I found a little paranoia goes a long way. I developed a newsletter directed at my own employees, but I also strategically distributed it to department heads throughout the institution. It soon became an in-house “bestseller.” It listed worldwide art thefts and disasters, and it gave details of how they occurred and what lessons were learned. People realized through these lurid tales that I was not playing the role of Chicken Little as security director because somewhere in the world the sky was falling on an ill-fated museum.


Drills are notoriously difficult and expensive to plan and carry out, but they are invaluable. Just as law enforcement and municipal agencies train for terrorist or biological attacks, and medical personnel role-play airplane crashes or other major disasters, museum personnel need to act out real-life preventive measures in case of fires and other emergencies.

Vivid, realistic drills in the museum world were largely the brainchild of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. On any given day, staffers may be toiling at their desks when suddenly alarms start to scream and strobe lights dance from the ceilings of the offices. A voice booms over the loudspeakers: “This is a drill. We are investigating an incident. There is smoke on the L-4 level…Please sit tight for further updates.”

The surprise emergency drill occurs annually. Sometimes using actors and role players, or more often volunteers and staff, the Getty Center creates detailed simulations. It may be a fire, as in the above example. If the announcer calls for an earthquake drill, employees have been taught to dive under their desks or tables before eventually evacuating the premises. If there are mock-wounded, security officers and supervisors acting as first-responders perform triage on the victims until rescue teams arrive. The name of the game is a realistic depiction of an emergency situation.

While evacuating, employees encounter bandaged and bleeding people screaming for them to go back and find an alternate route out. Doors are blocked by debris or even simulated smoke. Fire trucks provide a realistic setting and an adrenaline rush. Once people are outside, attendance is taken to make sure the 1,500 employees are all accounted for. Cameras scan stairwells to make sure that there are no stragglers.


The Getty has shared its expertise in these drills at national conferences. As a result, other museums have pumped up the realism in their own evacuations and emergency drills.

Some security planners single out a specific officer trained in CPR, direct him or her to a training mannequin, and say, “This is a drill. This man will die if you fail. Save him. Now!” Having officials barking commands deliberately creates stress and confusion, and onlookers apply added pressure on the prospective lifesaver. Nearly everyone tested agrees that they feel better able to rise to the occasion during actual events after being exposed to realistic conditions in training.

Learning from Experience

Some museums are lucky enough to emerge relatively unscathed from a disaster, then smart enough to take the hint and prepare accordingly for the next one. A good example is the Orlando Museum of Art. When Hurricane Charlie ripped Orlando with winds of 105 miles per hour, museum officials were awakened to the fact that a powerful storm could retain its destructive winds even after crossing over 100 miles of land.

Since its windows were too large to be covered with plywood or traditional hurricane panels, and it was too expensive to retrofit them with hurricane glass, the museum took the step of protecting them with a hurricane-rated film. The film also provides some degree of resistance to smash and grab break-ins.

Some disasters, like earthquakes, offer no time to react. Others, like Hurricane Katrina, are simply overwhelming. Katrina was the most devastating event in U.S. history with regard to cultural properties. Little could be done to prevent destruction from a storm packing a 30-foot surge tide and pounding winds. Amidst one million fleeing people, it was difficult to evacuate or salvage artifacts. All over the Gulf region, many artifacts survived the storm but were lost to mold and moisture in the weeks that followed. Just imagine the works on paper—the old and rare newspapers, historic documents, and other items, all left to rot.

The good news is that devastating events like Katrina do not occur often, and preparing for less catastrophic disasters is not difficult. With adequate planning and realistic drills, museums stand a fighting chance of surviving some of the worst nature has to offer.

Steve Keller, CPP, is president of Steve Keller, & Associates, Inc., of Ormond Beach, Florida, a Cultural Property Protection Group Company. He is a member of ASIS International, and a member of the ASIS Museum, Library, and Cultural Property Council.

Security by Industry

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