Law's Disaster: Heritage at Risk

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

49 Pages Posted: 26 May 2020 Last revised: 18 Sep 2020

See all articles by Sara C. Bronin

Sara C. Bronin

University of Connecticut - School of Law

Date Written: May 25, 2020


If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that our laws and legal institutions are ill-prepared for disasters of all kinds. Even as we continue to consider the ramifications of the pandemic, we must also grapple with natural hazards – large-scale meteorological and geological events such as hurricanes, tropical storms, tornadoes, floods, blizzards, wildfires, earthquakes, extreme heat, and drought – that will inevitably wreak havoc during our long recovery.

Some consequences of these disasters are well-known: loss of life, economic catastrophe, and destruction of homes. 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. A hurricane or earthquake could destroy completely an old building, especially one that has not been structurally reinforced. Extreme heat and intense precipitation can weaken joints, erode paint or other protections, and bring mold, reducing the lifespan of historic materials. Climate change, exacerbated by man, has made many of these events more frequent and more intense.

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

This Essay argues that legal reforms at the intersection of disaster law and historic preservation law are desperately needed to protect historic places before they succumb to flame, water, wind, or the earth itself. It starts by explaining what’s at stake: archaeological sites, vulnerable buildings, and even threatened 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 Essay next critiques the multi-governmental, federalist framework for heritage-related disaster planning, and highlights two states and four local governments starting to make necessary reforms. While no physical or legal intervention will ever be able to make historic sites last forever, we should try to make them more resilient to the avoidable consequences of obvious threats by changing the laws that render them vulnerable.

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 (2021)., Available at SSRN: or

Sara C. Bronin (Contact Author)

University of Connecticut - School of Law ( email )

65 Elizabeth Street
Hartford, CT 06105
United States

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