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Our Beacons of Hope

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Superstorm Sandy -- a natural disaster of virtually unprecedented proportions -- devastated communities along the eastern seaboard. Thousands were left too long without power, heat, and water; many lost homes, and far too many, their lives.

I was lucky. I had left my Battery Park City apartment on Oct. 28, under a mandatory evacuation order and headed uptown to safe haven with my son and his girlfriend. My daughter and her husband stayed in Brooklyn, my partner at his Bucks County, Pa. home.

My loved ones were safe. That's what matters most.

I was, however, worried about the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Located seven stories below the memorial plaza, the envelope of the museum's primary exhibition space is the slurry wall -- the retaining wall built to hold back the Hudson River when the World Trade Center was constructed in the mid-1960s. It is now designated an historic asset of the site under the Federal Preservation Act. The nonprofit National September 11 Memorial & Museum is legally obligated to make the slurry wall and other in-situ remnants of the original twin towers "meaningfully accessible" to the public. The only way to see these historic remnants is to go where they are -- 70 feet below street level.

Tuesday morning, I got word about flooding in the museum.

My heart sank. While the museum is not yet open, during the early phases of construction, several large artifacts had been lowered to bedrock, including the "Survivors' Stairs" and the "Last Column," a 37-foot-high beam that was the final piece of steel removed from the site at the close of the recovery effort. These artifacts are so large the museum had to be built around them. Among other large artifacts already placed there are two FDNY fire trucks and the World Trade Center cross.

I had to see for myself what happened. With the museum's creative director and security, I entered the pitch-black museum. We made our way down the pathway I knew so well, using flashlights. As we moved forward, we could hear the lapping of water.

The flashlights offered partial views. The depth of the water was unclear. I couldn't tell if the artifacts were fully or partially submerged. We continued down to the bedrock level, and a few steps beyond the lowest landing, there was water. We could go no further. Even through the low beams of our flashlights, we knew it was bad.

With the lights back on the next morning, I could see what I could only surmise the day before. There was indeed about seven feet of standing water throughout the museum. The humidity was thick, like a sauna. Luckily, before the Last Column had been lowered into the museum, we removed most of the paper and tribute items affixed to it, for conservation purposes. We took precautions to encase the column in a protective housing. Yet, here we were in the wake of Sandy, water at the base of the Last Column's enclosure.

How did the water come in?

This had been a monster storm, with a surge that raised the water level in lower Manhattan so high that West Street became a raging river.

The water roared into open WTC construction areas adjacent to the 9/11 Memorial. The flood waters gained strength as they rushed down to bedrock of the sites surrounding us, eventually pushing into the museum spaces from the sides.

I looked at the artifacts sitting in water, and now, my heart truly sank. This was a disaster.

But, then, I remembered that there are all kinds of disasters. Sandy was of the natural kind. The events of 9/11 -- unthinkable terrorist acts which this museum is dedicated to documenting -- represented a humanly-invented disaster, one that resulted in the indiscriminate mass murder of nearly 3,000 people. These artifacts testify, not only to what happened on 9/11, but to the courage, compassion, resilience, and generosity of spirit and community that characterized the aftermath of the attacks, the very same generosity of spirit we've now seen again, after Sandy.

I knew in my heart that these artifacts could prevail over this natural disaster, and that we would as well. With the waters pumped out, a preliminary inspection has confirmed that all inscriptions on the Last Column are present and intact; the World Trade Center cross, wrapped in a protective tarp, was unaffected; and while silt deposits coated the wheels and undercarriages of the shrink-wrapped first response vehicles, all were spared corrosion. The precautions we had taken to protect these and the other large artifacts had served us well.

In the wake of Sandy's devastation, the artifacts of 9/11 will still tell their story in a museum dedicated to the promise of renewal in the face of unspeakable harm. Reminders that we can overcome the most overwhelming challenges, once again, they are our beacons of hope.

Alice M. Greenwald is the director of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, where she is responsible for overseeing creation of the museum and development of its collections, exhibitions, educational services, and public programming.