Frumpfighter

Czech museum president shows leadership during, after flood

Posted on: March 26, 2009

When the National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library in southwest Cedar Rapids went under water during the historic Flood of 2008, Gail Naughton, the organization’s president and CEO, was devastated.

But then she got to work.

Gail Naughton     President/CEO Czech & Slovak Museum and Library

Gail Naughton President/CEO Czech & Slovak Museum and Library

“When you have a crisis, you need a leader who will stand up and communicate,” she told attendees at the Beyond Rubies women’s conference March 19 at Kirkwood Community College. “You have to have a strong person in front and fight. It’s been my job to lead this charge to carry this story.”

The museum had a disaster plan and it was implemented once word came that the nearby Cedar River would likely leave its banks. On June 10, 2008, furniture was moved and sandbags were placed around the immigrant home, one of five buildings owned by the museum.

The next day construction began on an earthen dam and critical library materials were removed. The museum sits more than 23 feet high and at that point workers and board members were cautious, but not worried, Naughton said.  The river was expected crest at 24 feet and Naughton was fairly confident the sandbags and levee would hold off flood waters.

Nobody could have predicted what happened overnight and Thursday, June 12 – the day of the epic surge. Pounding rain forced the Cedar well past the 24-foot stage and the river took over most of downtown, several residential areas and Czech Village.

The Gazette/The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids under several feet of water Friday, June 13, 2008.

The Gazette/The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids under several feet of water Friday, June 13, 2008.

Like most people, Naughton first saw the stunning image on television of the museum seemingly floating in the Cedar River.

“It rained all day; it was like the end of the world,” she said. “That was a pretty bad day.”

But unlike most stunned people watching TV, she had to compose herself and look toward the future.

“I called the staff and called a meeting to plan next steps,” she said “We needed to make the best decisions right away.”

The river crested at 31.3 feet on Friday, June 13, leaving 7 to 8 feet of water inside the National Museum. Naughton met that day with board members and put up a flood update page on the museum’s Web site so people from all over the world could find out what was happening. She also worked with media from the Czech Republic to get the word out.

“Before the water went down, we were working,” Naughton said. “Leadership is about stepping up, being visible and having the conviction to come out of it.”

They were allowed into building Tuesday, June 17, to assess the damage. A water line marked the pictures of the Homeland Exhibit. In the Petrie Gallery, the popular “1968” exhibit was destroyed. The force of the water was so strong, it actually bent a wall in half.

Outside, the scene was no better.

“Walking into Czech Village was like walking into a bomb site,” Naughton said.

The museum did have flood insurance for the library and artifacts collection. They were able to treat and handle artifacts immediately.

“We were more concerned to get to clean things than the damaged,” Naughton said. “The longer they sit in a wet building, the more we are concerned about mold.  We lost everything inside; the woodwork started to mold immediately, doors warped, the windows were gone.”

With all the damage and the long road ahead, there was never a question of whether or not to move forward.

“We knew instantly we would have to fight to save it,” Naughton said. “Once we had dealt with the immediate disaster, we had to keep our mission in mind and plan for the future.”

The Gazette/Petr Kolar (left) the Czech Republic's ambassador to the United States, surveys renovation progress at the National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library with president and CEO Gail Naughton on Oct. 29, 2008.

The Gazette/Petr Kolar (left) the Czech Republic's ambassador to the United States, surveys renovation progress at the National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library with president and CEO Gail Naughton on Oct. 29, 2008.

In July,  the board had an interim operating plan, which included setting up space at Lindale Mall. The board also worked with the city on a flood plan that included saving Czech Village and the museum.

“It’s a living plan, let me tell yak,” Naughton said. “There’s a lot still going on.”

Today, the main museum building is still gutted after being cleaned more than once. The heating and cooling systems have been restored enough to control the climate inside. Many of the artifacts and restored books are stored on wrapped pallets right under the chandelier in Grand Hall.

The main building will be repurposed for educational programming. “We are not going to able to do the same exhibitions as we did in the past because other museums won’t loan to us. It’s tainted,” Naughton said.

The total loss of the five buildings is between $8 million and $9 million. The price tag to come back is estimated at  $25 million.

“It’s a long, arduous, frustrating process,” Naughton said, “but we can’t afford not to save it.”

It would be easy to turn back and make everything the way it was, she said. But that would be a step back. “We need to take opportunities to make more out of this. I thought a couple of months ago that everything would be over and we would know more by now. The experience of this is something that will mark our lives and careers.”

To see The Gazette’s multimedia project about Czech Village’s recovery, go to http://ads.gazlab.com/goads/Czechvillage/czechvillage.html

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