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Weathering the storm: always be prepared! « The Polar Museum: news blog

The Polar Museum: news blog

Weathering the storm: always be prepared!

At 7.30 on Friday morning, I got the phone call that no conservator wants: there had been a flood in our basement storage areas and please could I come in as quickly as possible. I went immediately to the station, only to find that the trains between Cambridge and Ely were delayed because of waterlogged track:


While I was waiting for my train to arrive, I looked at the news online, to try to find out how bad things might be. There had been a very sudden thunderstorm on Thursday night, and my Twitter feed was full of pictures of giant hailstones, flooded tunnels and dramatic lightning strikes. The local newspaper was reporting closed schools and cancelled operations at Addenbrooke’s hospital. What would I find when I arrived at the Polar Museum???

Actually, there was no sign at all from the front of the building that there had even been a storm:


Inside was a different matter, however:


A drain had blocked at the bottom of a staircase and there was water throughout the whole of the basement. The museum stores are in this area, as well as some of the Library’s reserve shelving and the Institute’s own administrative paperwork. At its deepest, the water was about 8cm – this might not sound like much but is enough potentially to cause a lot of damage.

Luckily, we were well prepared! After a previous flood in the basement, we had made sure that none of our objects were stored directly on the ground. You can see in the picture below that the wooden blocks supporting these objects have got wet, but that the water didn’t reach the objects themselves.


Having objects and storage units raised up like this also helps with drying out areas after a flood. During a flood, the water gets underneath everything, and it can be difficult to get it out from underneath cupboards and shelves. If rooms are not dried out quickly, the humidity goes up, and there is a risk of mould growth or even structural damage to objects.

The plan chests in the photo below (which contain maps belonging to the Library’s collections) have been raised up on wooden battens, and this ensured that the water didn’t reach any of the drawers. The battens have holes cut in the bottom to allow water to flow out from underneath the chests; it continued to seep out for hours after we had dried the floor!


We were also well prepared in terms of equipment and training. The grey “sausages” that you can see in this picture are absorbent “booms” that you can use to block and divert flows of water. They won’t contain a full-scale flood, but can often be enough to prevent water from going into a room.


In our basement, we have a large yellow “disaster box” that contains essential materials for salvaging objects in an emergency:


Luckily, we didn’t need to salvage any objects after this flood. We have been working on our emergency plan and disaster preparedness over the last few months, so when our team got the phone call to say that there had been a flood, everyone knew what to do. Because we were well prepared, the response to this incident went smoothly and there was no damage to the historic collections. By the time the Institute opened at 9am, everything was under control and we had stopped to have a well deserved breakfast of coffee and croissants!


Of course, the clean-up effort didn’t stop there: the rest of the day was spent mopping up water, cleaning dirty floors and moving objects so we could dry out wet areas. We also had to monitor the environment in the affected areas, to make sure that it returned to normal as quickly as possible. I’ll write more about how we did this in another blog post!




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