Deploying to Puerto Rico

By Brian Lusher, NEA Historic Preservation Officer

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A man and a woman pose in front of a building.

NEA Historic Preservation Officer Brian Lusher (right) with Laura Quiñones, a registrar at Puerto Rico's Galería Nacional. Photo courtesy of Brian Lusher

Last fall, the world watched with sorrow as Hurricanes Maria, Irma, and Harvey devastated the southern United States and the Caribbean. To support arts and cultural communities affected by these disasters, the National Endowment for the Arts offered emergency funding to state arts agencies in Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.

A new aspect of the NEA’s involvement in recovery efforts unfolded this spring, when I was asked to deploy to Puerto Rico as the cultural resources coordinator for FEMA’s Natural and Cultural Resources Sector Recovery Support Function, or NCR RSF.

Andi Mathis, the NEA’s state and regional specialist, had shared with us her work to promote the arts in Puerto Rico, and I was eager to use my historic preservation expertise to assist with the recovery. Having watched my extended family in New Orleans recover from Hurricane Katrina, I was well aware of the incremental nature of recovery from a devastating hurricane.

With a sense of urgency, the NCR RSF assessed damage to the natural and cultural resources impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Strategically, the NCR RSF produced long-term repair and recovery plans for the resources that are important to Puerto Ricans and the visitors who come to the island.

We focused on storms’ impact to Puerto Rico’s national forests, coral reefs, parks, municipal town squares, historic buildings and districts, archaeological sites, ruins, and museum collections. I was happy to learn that not only does FEMA assist with the repair of storm-related damage to buildings and sites, but it also provides assistance to facilities whose collections were damaged. This is important because the heritage tourism economy is a vital element of Puerto Rico’s recovery. Similar efforts are underway for the damage to cultural and natural resources on the U.S. Virgin Islands.

During the month I spent in Puerto Rico, I focused on the numerous historic properties and districts that tell the story of Puerto Rico’s history, including the historic districts of San German, Aguirre, and Old San Juan. When people think of Puerto Rico, their first thought might be of Old San Juan, with its Spanish architecture, vibrant colors, and intricate iron railings. Old San Juan, which is a National Historic Landmark, and has more than 700 contributing structures and buildings, is vital to understanding Puerto Rican history, and it abuts the port, which is so important to Puerto Rico’s economy. FEMA also assessed properties that are listed in the Puerto Rican Register of Historic Places, including several dozen sites that are administered by the Instituto de Cultura Puertorricquena, or ICP, which is the state arts agency for Puerto Rico.

One facility I visited with FEMA was the ICP-administered Galeria Nacional, which is located in Old San Juan. The museum occupies the restored Saint Aquinas monastery. The monastery, along with the adjoining San José Church, is a significant work of architecture on the island. The Galeria suffered major damage during the hurricanes, including pervasive black mold and the destruction of its HVAC system. However, due to the hard work of the Galeria’s registrars and staff, the collections were kept safe and have been stored in controlled conditions, despite intermittent electricity immediately after the storm. Along with FEMA cost estimators, I met with one of the Galeria’s registrars, Laura Quinones to survey the building’s damage and to view the collections.

In my time in Puerto Rico, I joined a revolving cadre of federal government employees, including historians, architects, conservators, curators, and engineers from federal agencies including the National Park Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Also, we worked with many dedicated Puerto Ricans and FEMA Reservists.

The energy in the Joint Recovery Office was fast-paced and inspirational; about 1,600 of us worked in a single, giant room. It was an incredible honor to serve alongside these public servants as we helped our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico begin to rebuild, and I was proud to represent the NEA in this huge and ongoing recovery effort.