Reconstructing records poses a huge challenge

Hurricane also damaged documents that will be vital to rebuilding lives

Katrina's Wake

September 03, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

In Bay St. Louis, Miss., part of the courthouse collapsed. In Chalmette, La., local judges were reportedly stranded at the St. Bernard Parish court, trying to reconstruct records damaged in the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina. And at the Louisiana Supreme Court in New Orleans, boxes of evidence files were reported to be soaked.

With authorities still trying to restore order in New Orleans and provide essential services and count the dead along the Gulf Coast, most rescue personnel had little time to worry about documents that might have been lost in the storm.

But archivists and others across the country were turning their attention to what could become an increasingly vexing problem as people try to rebuild their lives: the potential destruction of the vital records of births, deaths, wills, marriages, divorces and property ownership.

"After the necessities are restored and people are housed and are provided with clean water and basic supplies, then people are going to try to re-establish their lives, and it's going to be very difficult to do without public records," said Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Victoria Walch, program director for the Council of State Archivists in Iowa City, Iowa, said property documents are the "records closest to home" but are often stored in basements.

"They're the backbone of the community but they're also the least funded," she said.

Soon after the storm, Walch sent out a mass e-mail to state archivists around the country to rally them to the aid of the affected areas.

Mississippi's state archivist said he's still trying to determine the status of the courthouses and public records repositories in that state's three hard-hit coastal counties.

"One of the problems is that we can't go there because we can't get gas. We can't send assessment teams down there," said H.T. Holmes, director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson.

Holmes said state records are secure but local records could be vulnerable because they are not routinely backed up by copies in the state archives.

"It's very much a locally defended right to care for their records," he said.

Holmes said he knows the Gulfport courthouse is on high ground and the Chancery Court clerk in Harrison County, which includes Biloxi and Gulfport, runs one of the finest records management programs in the state - likely ensuring that backups were made.

But Holmes expressed concern about Hancock County, where the storm surge caused extensive damage in the courthouse in Bay St. Louis.

Tom Turley, an employee of the Alabama state archives, said there was no damage to public records in Mobile and other areas hit by the hurricane.

In Louisiana, however, state archivists were returning to their jobs yesterday for the first time. Phone calls to Baton Rouge did not go through, and questions e-mailed to the archive were not answered.

There was little official word about public records, but postings to the New Orleans Times-Picayune Web site told of serious damage to courthouses in St. Bernard, St. Charles and St. Tammany parishes.

A court employee who was evacuated from St. Bernard Parish posted a note saying Judge Kirk Vaughn and another judge were "staying behind to try to rebuild St. Bernard Parish and reconstruct court records lost and damaged in the flood."

Walch said the nation's archivists were especially sensitive to what was happening in New Orleans because they had just held a convention in that city two weeks ago. She said many archivists were offering storage space, staff assistance and other help in recovering records.

Restoring damaged documents could be difficult, however. "Even if things aren't wet now, they're going to be moldy just because of the high humidity levels and [the fact] there's no air conditioning" in hurricane-damaged areas, she said.

One of the state archivists who said he's prepared to lend assistance is Maryland's Edward C. Papenfuse.

Papenfuse said that in many states the most basic records of human life - including marriage and birth certificates - are kept at the local level. He said whether they're backed up in microfilm or electronic form is a question of resources.

"The rich counties are able to have disaster recovery plans. The counties that aren't reasonably wealthy are less likely to have good disaster recovery plans," he said.

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