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Hurricane Help: Watson-Brown, curator focus on history

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Watson Brown Curator Michele Zupan (left) poses with members of the history preservation team.
Special to The Mirror
Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast region and made history. Unfortunately, history also was lost that day.Museums, historical sites, city and county records, and antebellum homes were destroyed all along the coast, and the Watson-Brown Foundation took it to heart.

"I sent a bleeding-heart e-mail to Tad Brown asking if there was something we could do," said Michelle Zupan, the curator for Hickory Hill in Thomson.

Ms. Zupan said when she sent the e-mail to Mr. Brown, the president of the Watson-Brown Foundation which also owns Hickory Hill, her thoughts were along the line of expanding their grants. But Mr. Brown had something more hands-on in mind.

As a member of the American Association of State and Local History, Mr. Brown, through the Watson-Brown Foundation, organized an endeavor to help museums along the gulf coast assess their damages, write grants, and find restoration funding.

"Southern History is what we do," Ms. Zupan said. "I would do anything I could, whether it's sweat equity or financial, and I ended up giving a lot of sweat equity."

The Watson-Brown Foundation proposed a matching-grant project, posting a $10,000 grant, which was matched by the History Channel and given to the association. The association created four volunteer History Emergency Assessment Teams from across the nation to go to the sites, take pictures, write assessments and start the search for funds.

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Crews work on Beauvoir in Biloxi, Miss., one of the projects included in the Watson-Brown Foundation grant money.
Special to The Mirror
"We had people in the fields by (Sept.) 20th, and that's just amazing. It's never been done before," Ms. Zupan said. "We covered all repositories of culture: museums, historical sites, zoos, libraries."

Ms. Zupan spent one week in Biloxi and Pass Christian, Miss. In Biloxi, she worked at Beauvoir, the last home of Jefferson Davis, which included the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library.

Ms. Zupan said it is amazing that the house, which sits on the coastline, is still standing. A 30-foot storm surge went over the house's roof and swept away the wrap-around porch. Rushing water also washed away 3-inch stone hearths from inside the house.

The team reported it will take about $32 million dollars to restore the house and library. Recovery of items has already begun, Ms. Zupan said. She said most of the library collection ended up in the lagoon behind the house, which is now filled with raw sewage. During excavation one day, they did find one critical artifact: the traveling cloak that Mr. Davis was wearing when he was arrested.

In Biloxi, the scene was much worse. There, the museum had completely collapsed, she said. Looking at the destruction, she asked herself, "Where do you start?"

"One day we worked all day, and all we pulled out was three fishing poles," she said of the recovery efforts in Biloxi. "We considered it a good day."

In Pass Christian, Ms. Zupan said the Historical Society was housed in an old bank. In preparation for the storm, the society put as much of their collection as possible in the bank vault. The vault was the only part of the building left standing, but the door had been blown open and each artifact has "at least a one-inch layer of mold on it."

"It's indescribably heart-wrenching to see, there's nothing left. But what is left is now that much more precious," Ms. Zupan said of the damage reported from the hurricane.

In addition to historical records and items, many city and country records are also covered in mold. Ms. Zupan said the Mississippi Department of Archives and History has "acres and acres of freezer trucks" for storage to stop the mold growth.

"As the organizations get the money, they can get the items out of frozen storage and work on it piece by piece, as the money comes in," she said.

Ms. Zupan said approximately 150 museums in Mississippi have been impacted by Katrina, but it is not yet known how many actually are destroyed. But even historical sites that have minor damage will be difficult to restore. It also will be difficult to locate the types of vegetation that are native to southern Mississippi for replanting.

Ms. Zupan hopes to use some of her vacation time in the fall to return to Mississippi to assist in recovering its history.

"I hope we never, ever see anything like this (hurricane) again. I don't know if our heritage can take any more damage," she said. "I guess it's the price we have to pay for living in paradise."



Web posted on Thursday, October 27, 2005











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