When Superstorm Sandy ripped through New York City in October 2012, it did not discriminate. At the construction site of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, chief operating officer John Stanley recalls “mechanical equipment bobbing like corks” in the floodwaters. And at the Rubin Museum of Art, a few blocks uptown, and upland, the museum lost power—a necessity for preserving the artifacts from environmental damage—and the backup generators weren’t enough to keep the facility running. “We thought if we do lose power, in the history of New York City, it would be for a day or two,” executive director Patrick Sears says. “No one really anticipated we could go without power for a week.”
But as once-rare storms like these become more common and more consequential (Sandy caused an estimated $70 billion in damage, behind only Hurricane Katrina), coastal communities are reorienting to a world where they might be underwater at a moment’s notice. And museums are leading the charge when it comes to bolstering up in the face of extreme weather—after all, financially speaking, they might have the most to lose. Along the Eastern Seaboard, from Miami to Manhattan, curators are going to extremes to safeguard their art. And in doing so, they’re testing out ideas and processes that might later be adopted by everyone else who lives on the coast.
Looking back, Stanley says the timing of Superstorm Sandy was actually fortuitous for his museum, the Whitney. Because it was early enough in construction, the team was able to revise its plans with water in mind. “We searched the world for flood experts and engineers,” he says. With the help of WTM Engineers in Hamburg, Germany, the Whitney design team re-evaluated the entire site and, as the Atlantic reported in 2015, built one of the most flood-resilient structures in town.
As a result of lessons learned in Sandy, the museum is waterproof up to 16½ feet thanks to its raised elevation and carefully selected materials. It’s also got walls galore: A 500-foot-long mobile wall can be constructed in less than seven hours to protect the museum from a storm surge’s impact, and a 14-by-27-foot flood door can withstand the force of a semitruck floating (or flung) across the West Side Highway. Stanley says it cost just $10 million more to disaster-proof what was, in total, a $220 million project. And though the safeguards haven’t been tested the hard way, he’s confident they’ll rise to the occasion if—or rather, when—another disaster unfolds.
Some museums farther south on the Atlantic seaboard have already lived to see their hurricane-resistant designs tested by storms. Employees at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, recently weathered Hurricane Irma with little damage. Back in July, a videographer for the Washington Post filmed inside the “surreal shelter from the storm.” To protect the precious collection, the Dalí relies on 18-inch-thick walls, which are built to withstand the winds of a Category 5 storm, and fortified glass, which can hold up under the pressure of Category 3 winds. As with so many other museums, the Dalí’s decision to gird its infrastructure seems financially sound: If its walls were breached, the largest collection of Salvador Dalí paintings in the world, priceless and carefully preserved over the past century, could be lost in an instant.