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Storm damage at the Air Zoo has compromised artifacts in the archives

Two volunteers or employees begin the process of drying out and trying to save collection artifacts after the roof was damaged by storms that caused a tornado on May 7, 2024.
Gordon Evans
Volunteers and staff are drying out artifacts from the Air Zoo's collection that were damaged by rain water after a May 7, 2024 tornado damaged the roof of the building.

WMUK’s Brian O’Keefe spoke to the director of the Air Zoo Aerospace & Aviation Experience the day after a tornado touched down near the Portage museum.

BRIAN O’KEEFE: Severe weather rolled through the area and you felt the impact of that. Tell me what happened at the Air Zoo.

TROY THRASH: I was actually alone in the Air Zoo, down in the basement and definitely heard some nasty things going on up top.

And so, between the first and second rounds of that, I walked around our main building and things looked really good. I was really pleased with the way the roof held up as I was walking through our exhibit floor.

But then I got to our education classrooms and saw that there was water streaming down through the ceiling. And that immediately became my second biggest concern because above the education classrooms is our collection - our collection of about 80,000 military, aviation, and space artifacts dating back to the early 1900s.

So, when I was able to get into the collection, I saw that there was water streaming down from the roof.

Three metal carts on wheels are holding two shelves of historical black and white photographs.  The photos are laying out on the carts to dry after being damaged by rain after a tornado touched down in Portage near the Air Zoo on May 7, 2024.
Gordon Evans
Historical photographs drying at the Air Zoo. The photos are rain damaged after a the roof above the museum's collections was damaged by a tornado that touched down near the museum on May 7, 2024.

BRIAN O’KEEFE: Artifacts and ephemera generally feel the brunt of water damage. What's been lost?

TROY THRASH: Yeah. Well, I will say, truer words have never been spoken.

I've talked to a few people already who said, "Oh, well, thank goodness it didn't leak on the planes."

And I said, "Well, I would tell you I would have given anything for the water to be running over our wildcat or Corsair."

They were slightly better built for weather like this, then say, archival material, and books, and letters, and things like that. And so, unfortunately, that was a big part of it.

In fact, I am walking through our collection right now and I’m looking at the damage from last night.

We ended up having to pull out thousands of photos. Thousands of letters, and manuals, and models, and even several spacesuits that were really... I mean... where it started dripping down.

Ultimately, as the seams (in the roof) opened up more, we had to expand that radius of materials of artifacts that we had to pull out of the collection and take downstairs.

Looking at some of these very old magazines, and photos, and other archival materials. We are going to do our best to save them.

Black and white photos and historical magazines, letters and other documents dry on a yardsticks over a tarp at the Air Zoo.
Gordon Evans
Historical photographs, magazines and other artifacts are laid out to dry after severe storms and a tornado on May 7, 2024 damaged the roof at the Air Zoo on Portage Road.

BRIAN O’KEEFE: Is restoration going to be a possibility or are things just lost?

TROY THRASH: We'll be able to restore a good portion of, again, some of the harder materials.

There are some where the ink has already just taken over some of these pieces of paper that there isn't going to be much we can do about those. But it’s still kind of very early on in the process right now.

I will tell you, I am so thankful for just the number of people who have reached out to me and to us here at the Air Zoo offering to help. And that includes organizations like the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, who they have the expertise as well in terms of archiving, in terms of maintaining that collection. And so, we're kind of building that team to come down here and develop a plan.

Last night it was basically three hours of not thinking too hard. Just getting everything that we could out of harm's way, as quickly as possible.

One thing that I'm very thankful about is we were able to cover with tarps our hundreds and hundreds of uniforms. Primarily military uniforms, before more of the ceiling opened up over there.

I am thankful for the 20 or so, Air Zoo employees, and volunteers, and family members who came here, who were able to really get ahead of things.

We are feeling very positive right now. We really are. Because we know it could have been so much worse.

Along with staff from the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, Thrash says a representative from Battle Creek’s Kingman Collections museum is also helping with restoration efforts. 

Brian comes to WMUK after spending nearly 30 years as News Director of a public radio station in the Chicago area. Brian grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and attended Western Kentucky University where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Broadcasting. He started working in public radio while at WKU; and has worked in radio news for more than 35 years. Brian lives on a quiet lake in Barry County with his wife and three dogs. Thanks to his Kentucky roots, he’s an avid collector of bourbon and other varieties of whiskey. Above all else, Brian considers himself a story teller and looks forward to sharing southwest Michigan stories with WMUK’s listeners.