After Sally: Working to Clean Up Pensacola's Special Historic Places
On September 16, 2020, Hurricane Sally, a destructive Category 2 hurricane with sustained winds of 105 mph, made landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama.
Although landfall was at Gulf Shores, the impact of the storm was felt into the Florida Panhandle and especially in a place close to many Florida Preservationists’ hearts: Pensacola, the oldest city in America (in constant friendly battle with St. Augustine over this honor) and the site of our 2019 Florida Preservation Conference: First Florida Forever Florida. Our conference attendees probably looked at damage photos coming out of Pensacola and saw familiar locations visited throughout the event.
The major threat for Pensacola was water. Pensacola Fire Chief Ginny Cranor told CNN, “We had 30 inches of rain in Pensacola -- 30-plus inches of rain -- which is four months of rain in four hours.”
This threat was especially significant in the city’s historic downtown.
“No one had prepared for it, because we were told it was a tropical storm,” said Ross Pristera, Florida Trust Board Member and Historic Preservationist for the University of West Florida Historic Trust. “Once it was clear it was going to be a hurricane, there wasn’t enough time to make serious preparation efforts.”
When the storm ended residents went out to survey the damage and discovered there would be lots of work to do. A crane aboard a barge crashed into the Pensacola Bay Bridge destroying a section of the bridge, which will likely cause the bridge to be closed for at least a month. A giant tree fell on Church Street and, thankfully, the 188-year-old Old Christ Church only lost a couple of shutters.
Pristera said the North Hill Historic neighborhood lost lots of trees and branches were down, and in historic buildings around the city wind and rain blew water in through cracks and there is roof damage throughout the city. This week the City of Pensacola handed out more than 1,000 tarps to temporarily cover that damage.
Many buildings were days without power, which made it a challenge to dehumidify, remedy water intrusion and work to fix damaged buildings. Pristera said almost every UWF-owned building suffered some level of water intrusion from the storm, and for some it will be a few weeks before those buildings can be reopened.
In the case of Museums impacted by the storm, these closures causes an additional strain for organizations that had only reopened after COVID shut downs earlier this year. Some Pensacola museums only reopened in July.
“This is going to be a challenging year,” Pristera said.
Photos: (l to r) Roof damage at the Museum of Commerce; interior look at missing roof in the maintenance area of the Museum of Commerce; damage to the courtyard behind the Wentworth where we held the Opening Reception of our 2019 Florida Preservation Conference; there were many fallen trees throughout Pensacola after the storm; interior damage after a leak from a damaged roof: exterior of the Wentworth Museum as work is conducted to dry out the building. Photos courtesy of Ross Pristera.
The Museum of Commerce, where we held registration and vendor booths at the 2019 conference, lost a portion of the roof and experienced water intrusion from the roof leak and flood waters. When the roof blew off it ripped out the fire sprinkler system, which contributed to the flooding. Fortunately, the exhibit areas for the museum are fine, with the majority of the damage in a maintenance workshop within the building.
“Tools are ruined, but the exhibits are OK,” Pristera said. Although the storm will require clean up, Pristera said it could have been worse. There was no damage to any collections in any of the museums owned by UWF.
The T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Museum Building experienced a flooded basement and lost a section of the roof, which caused the third floor to become saturated. That area held an exhibit on super heroes and comic books, and staff worked quickly to remove paper items, stabilize the interior of the building and dehumidify the interior of the building. The Pensacola Little Theatre, the beautiful historic theater where we held the 2019 Florida Preservation Awards, suffered flooding and damage that caused the delay of the opening of the play Steel Magnolias - what would have been an exciting event after months of COVID closures (they are now hoping to raise the curtains in October).
Old Pensacola Village education staff worked hard to clean up the large amount of debris in the Village proper. It will take some time, especially to clean up the grounds and gardens, but, fortunately, there was not significant damage to the historic buildings.
Storm cleanup is long-term process, and the Florida Trust has offered to help the Pensacola preservation community however we can in the days and weeks ahead. We will keep you posted.