Main Streets Dig out from Disaster

The headlines from the Northeast recently have been truly astounding—first an earthquake that had East Coasters rattled, and just a few days later, a deadly hurricane that packed a destructive punch of torrential rain and high winds. The impact has been felt by historic resources of all types: bridges, buildings, and yes, historic Main Streets. In a statement by National Trust President, Stephanie Meeks, “the loss and damage to historic properties and communities due to Hurricane Irene has been one of the many regrettable outcomes of this storm.”

Here’s a round-up of how Main Street communities fared in the face of these extreme events, and some resources for planning and recovery should Mother Nature be unkind to your corner of the world.

New Jersey

Our friends at Preservation New Jersey report that while the situation appears to be better than feared for places like Asbury Park  and Cape May, the Main Street communities of Somerville and Cherry Hill are among those where flooding and downed trees have made for a “nightmare clean-up.”

Unfortunately, another side effect of natural disasters is often rash and unsympathetic decision-making during recovery that unfairly targets historic buildings. We’re seeing that in Woodbury where municipal officials have issued a demolition order for the National Register-listed G.G. Green Building, which suffered a few loosened bricks during the earthquake. Bridgeton reports a historic downtown commercial building was demolished within 48 hours of the earthquake, amid what may have been unfounded concerns about stability. Culpeper, Virginia is on the verge of suffering the same injustice: two historic properties are among the eight buildings that have been condemned in the aftermath of a rare East Coast earthquake. One of the damaged historic buildings, the Christian Assembly Building, once offered respite to General Robert E. Lee and noted Civil War calvaryman Jeb Stuart. It, along with a commercial building that currently houses a barbershop, awaits results from a structural assessment and repair estimates.


A state that has twice made the National Trust’s 11-Most Endangered List and is known worldwide for its vibrant downtowns sadly experienced the lion’s share of the wrath of Irene. While New Hampshire and Maine mostly experienced wind effects from the storm, Vermont endured the deluge of rainfall. Brandon, Waterbury, White River Junction and Brattleboro appear to be the worst hit, while Rutland and Bennington were spared. Besides massive flooding that has inundated downtown commercial districts, the flooding wiped out roads and bridges—at a time of year when towns are usually readying for their busiest travel season: fall foliage.  Photos such as the ones in this Facebook album tell a heartbreaking story of destruction. But, proving that innovation and solidarity often follow quickly in the heels of disaster, is a campaign which gives Vermonters, both actual and virtual, a means to support the Vermont Food Bank through the purchase of a t-shirt emblazoned with the inspiring claim, “I am Vermont Strong.”

North Carolina

The news from coastal North Carolina is also grim. Washington, NC  lost three buildings, displacing four businesses. Its Turnage Theater, recently rehabbed with support from the National Trust Community Investment Corporation, had portions of the roof and exterior wall-facing blow off, water damage on the stage floor, some ceiling tile damage, and destroyed wall panels in the upstairs theater—but organizers expect to proceed with their season of performances.  Goldsboro lost one building, Plymouth lost two, and there was much tree damage, power loss and flooding throughout the area. New Bern, Windsor and Greenville are other Main Street communities facing an onerous cleanup.


The Atlantic beach towns of Delaware and Maryland fared very well physically, but Rehoboth Beach, a Great American Main Street Award winner, illustrated another damaging dimension of hurricanes and their dire forecasts: the Chamber of Commerce there estimates that the town suffered $40 million in lost revenue. Residents and tourists either wisely evacuated or stayed away last weekend, making the town a veritable ghost town.

What to Do

Get prepared! Don’t wait for an emergency in your area to familiarize yourself with the wealth of National Trust disaster preparedness and recovery resources that are available. Being prepared also means being well-versed in language to counter rash decisions regarding damaged properties in your town. Be poised to offer appropriate alternatives to anyone who will listen, whether they be your neighbors or your Mayor.