Law's Disaster: Heritage at Risk

Bronin, Sara C., "Law's Disaster: Heritage at Risk," 46 Columbia Journal of Environmental Law 489 (2021).

Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 21-40

35 Pages Posted: 26 May 2020 Last revised: 3 Nov 2021

See all articles by Sara C. Bronin

Sara C. Bronin

Cornell University - College of Architecture, Art & Planning; Cornell University - Law School

Date Written: May 25, 2020


Large-scale meteorological and geological events—including hurricanes, tropical storms, tornadoes, floods, blizzards, wildfires, earthquakes, extreme heat, and drought—have many consequences: loss of life, economic catastrophe, and destruction of homes among them. Perhaps less well-known are the threats to the historic and cultural sites that speak to human identity and create a sense of connection across generations. These sites are designated spaces of value, given their historical or cultural significance, and they are preserved to commemorate important moments in the story of the lived human experience. Yet hurricanes can destroy old buildings, especially ones that have not been structurally reinforced. Extreme heat and intense precipitation can reduce the lifespan of historic material through weakened joints, eroded paint and other surface protections, and mold. Climate change has made many of these large-scale events more frequent and more intense. Further, the physical vulnerability of these places is deeply tied to social vulnerability of the populations they serve.

Given the climate’s increasing risks to historic sites, one might assume that disaster-related planning, mitigation, and recovery efforts are being undertaken with increased urgency. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

This Article argues that historic places desperately need the protection of legal reforms at the intersection of disaster law and historic preservation law before they succumb to flame, water, wind, or the earth itself. It starts by explaining what is at stake: archaeological sites, vulnerable buildings, and even national landmarks like Mesa Verde and the Statue of Liberty. It then establishes the three stages where disaster-related legal protection of historic resources is needed: before, during, and after disaster. The Article next critiques the multi-governmental, federalist framework for heritage-related disaster law, and highlights two states and four local governments starting to make necessary reforms. While no physical or legal intervention will ever make historic sites last forever, we should change laws and policies to ensure these sites are more resilient in the face of obvious threats.

Note: A shorter version of this piece will be forthcoming in the 2021 Cambridge Handbook of Disaster Law, Susan Kuo; John Marshall; Ryan Rowberry, eds.

Keywords: historic preservation, heritage, resilience, climate change, disaster, natural disaster, hurricane, earthquake, flood, flooding, state government, FEMA, emergency management, public policy

Suggested Citation

Bronin, Sara C., Law's Disaster: Heritage at Risk (May 25, 2020). Bronin, Sara C., "Law's Disaster: Heritage at Risk," 46 Columbia Journal of Environmental Law 489 (2021)., Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 21-40, Available at SSRN: or

Sara C. Bronin (Contact Author)

Cornell University - College of Architecture, Art & Planning ( email )

Ithaca, NY
United States

Cornell University - Law School

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States

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