NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- Special agents from the National Park Service's visitor and resource protection branch are investigating a catastrophic flood that inflicted $11.4 million in damage to the historic Jamestown archaeological collection during Hurricane Isabel.
Enveloped by 5 feet of water during the Sept. 18 storm, the famous collection of more than 900,000 artifacts represents one of the nation's most important links to its beginnings in the first permanent English settlement of 1607. Rescued from a basement storage as the Jamestown Visitor Center was being condemned, the objects are now undergoing preliminary treatment in a Fort Lee warehouse that has been converted into a makeshift conservation lab.
"We're trying to see exactly what took place, if the proper procedures were followed and if any of this damage could have been avoided," said Elaine M. Sevy, a spokeswoman for the office of National Park Service Director Fran P. Mainella, as she described the investigation.
"We also want to learn from this so we can be better stewards of our collections in the future."
Investigators from the Division of Visitor and Resource Protection arrived at the Visitor Center, which is part of Colonial National Historical Park, not long after the Park Service sent an incident-management team to respond to the disaster.
Dispatched at the request of Mainella and the secretary of the interior, the special agents questioned members of the park's staff as well as several other sources before returning to Washington. They are expected to submit a report that will be made public, Sevy said, but no timetable for its completion has been established.
Additional contributions to the report may be requested from other branches of the Park Service, including its Washington-based office of cultural resource stewardship and partnerships.
Associate Director Pat Tiller said he was unaware of the exact role that he and his staff would be playing.
"Some of the issues being investigated have to do with the preparations before the storm and the recovery efforts directly afterward," Tiller said.
"But right now, I can't tell you much more than that, except to say that this is a pretty spectacular collection and that we are very concerned about the way it is taken care of."
In addition to the archaeological artifacts being conserved at Fort Lee, several parts of the Jamestown collection, including a large number of waterlogged photographs and paper archives associated with excavations in the 1930s and '50s, have been sent to consultants for specialized treatment.
Curator Jackie Holt said that virtually all the collection could be saved by a rescue effort expected to take as long as three years.
The Newport News Daily Press is a Tribune Publishing Co. newspaper in Virginia