One Year Later: East Coast Earthquake and Tropical Storm Irene


A year ago, the East Coast earthquake and tropical storm Irene spelled trouble for a number of historic sites. In Washington, D.C., a magnitude 5.8 earthquake caused cracks to appear in the Washington Monument and significant damage to the elaborate stonework on the National Cathedral.  In Vermont, iconic covered bridges were washed away by raging floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene.
Preservationists were quick to respond, and today multiple efforts are underway to repair the damage caused by these two events. Two in particular are highlighted here:

National Cathedral

Hundreds of thousands of visitors tour the buildings and grounds of the National Cathedral each year, taking delight in the intricate carvings and stained glass windows. The building also serves as a house of worship and the site of national ceremonies, including presidential events and funerals. The foundation stone for the building was laid in 1907, initiating a building campaign that would last for 83 years. When the earthquake struck on the afternoon of August 23, the massive pinnacles and decorative carvings on the building twisted, broke and shattered on the ground.  At the time, the Cathedral was already struggling with a backlog of maintenance and repairs.

Last week, on the anniversary of the earthquake, the National Cathedral announced its first major restoration gift—a $5 million grant from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment Inc., which will allow the Cathedral to launch a full restoration effort. The Reverend Dr. Francis H. Wade, the Cathedral’s interim dean, the Reverend Jean Smith, religion program director for the Lilly Endowment, and Stephanie Meeks, National Trust president, participated in the announcement.  Until now, the efforts have focused on stabilizing damaged stone and mapping out the extent of the damage.

The National Trust has designated the Cathedral as a National Treasure to raise awareness about the damage caused by the earthquake and the pressing preservation needs of this irreplaceable building. It recently awarded a $5,000 grant through its Preservation Fund to help the National Cathedral conduct a seismic study with Columbia University and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. The study will help pinpoint what threats exist to the National Cathedral from future seismic activity, and what steps can be taken to reinforce the building as part of its restoration. 

”All of us at Washington National Cathedral are thrilled by our ability to officially launch the restoration phase of earthquake recovery, made possible by the Lilly Endowment’s transformative gift,” said Richard M. Weinberg, the Cathedral’s director of communications.

Preservation Trust of Vermont

Tropical Storm Irene, which followed close on the heels of the earthquake, brought huge amounts of rain and high winds to New England and the Mid-Atlantic causing widespread flooding and downed trees. Vermont was particularly hard hit—historic buildings in village centers were flooded and many of the state’s picturesque covered bridges were damaged by the high water. The Bartonsville Covered Bridge (1870) washed down the Williams River, a heartbreaking scene captured on a video that caught the attention of thousands of You Tube viewers.

The Preservation Trust of Vermont (PTV) moved quickly to help with recovery efforts.  Thanks to donations from individuals, and foundation grants, PTV spent $230,000 to help communities rehabilitate and rebuild covered bridges, provide $5,000 and $10,000 grants to help rehabilitate key community gathering places and community-owned buildings in downtowns and village centers, and to cover the cost of emergency engineering and architectural assessments on more than 50 historic buildings. The organization also worked with state government to increase funds available for the Downtown Village Tax Credit program. A total of $500,000 in new tax credits were directed to the rebuilding of historic buildings in flood-affected communities.

"While it may take many years for a full recovery, we've been blessed with an outpouring of financial support from second homeowners in Vermont.  In Wilmington, for example, we helped a couple establish the Wilmington Fund which raised more than $500,000 to rescue historic buildings in that community's devastated downtown," Paul Bruhn executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont reports.