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Last modified: Monday, December 5, 2005

Archivists go to great lengths to rescue damaged documents

Dec. 5, 2005

Special Projects Officer Forrest Galey (left) and Director H.T. Holmes of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History recover records from Bay St. Louis. Photo permission of Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Print-Quality Photo

Editors: Katrina recovery stories and photographs by IU School of Journalism students also are being distirbuted today and are available for one-time use in newspapers and at media Web sites without charge. Photographs for these stories, along with a general file of other pictures, are available at

The students retain their copyright to the stories and photos. Before publication, please e-mail Professor Carol Polsgrove at to express your understanding that the writers and photographers retain their copyright. The writers and photographers would appreciate having clips of their published work, which can be sent to Carol Polsgrove, School of Journalism, Indiana University, Ernie Pyle Hall, Bloomington, IN 47405. All of the stories can be found at


By Suzannah Evans

JACKSON, Miss. -- Archivists used to go by a rule when it came to wet and moldy documents: get them out of the water within 48 hours, or the damage is irreversible.

That was before Hurricane Katrina.

In the aftermath of the storm, it was days to weeks before local, state and federal archivists and volunteers could rescue books, newspaper archives, photographs, geneologies and local historical records from inundated libraries and historical societies in Mississippi and New Orleans.

These records are vital not just because some have historical significance. The Governor's Commission, a statewide planning effort to rebuild the Mississippi coast, needs city planning documents and photographs to reconstruct devastated towns.

Part of the confusion stemmed from the fact that FEMA didn't have authority over records and archives, said H.T. Holmes, director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which is headquartered in Jackson.

"It slowed us down a lot," Holmes said. "It was unclear early on if FEMA would reimburse [the cost of recovery]."

Just the recovery and restoration of the city records of Pascagoula, Miss., a city of 25,000 along the coast, could cost between $4 million and $5 million, Holmes said.

Allen Weinstein, the archivist of the United States, recently visited Louisiana and Mississippi to see the ruin firsthand. He had previously freed $25,000 in discretionary funds each for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama state archives departments. His next goal is to get records and archives included in FEMA's disaster plan so next time there isn't such a delay in getting to records.

Preston Huff, assistant regional administrator for the National Archives' southwest region, was with Weinstein as they viewed the damage. Even then, volunteers and archivists were just beginning to pull damp, mildewed papers out of the city hall of Pass Christian, Miss., a town nearly wiped away by Katrina.

"It is a huge wakeup call. I don't think anyone could have been prepared for anything the size of Katrina," Huff said. "I've been doing this for more than 30 years. I've seen a lot of local damage ... but nothing quite like this."

From New Orleans to Pascagoula, tons of soaked documents have been pulled out of libraries, courthouses and city halls, but few of them have been identified at this point. Instead, they sit in freezers across the country waiting to be vacuum-dried and, hopefully, restored.

The good news is that local and federal archivists, as well as volunteer groups across the country, have begun communicating where they never did before, Huff said.

"We've developed such partnerships out of this," he said. "I think we'll come out a little better prepared."

The other good news? The old 48-hour rule, the one that said wet papers can't be saved after two days in the muck, has been declared dead. While the task of restoring much of documents now in storage lies ahead, more can be salvaged than anyone hoped.

"I think we have done rethunk it," Holmes said with a note of triumph. "That's what we'd always been told and had been operating on. We were going in three, four, five weeks after the fact."

Suzannah Evans is a graduate student in journalism from Indianapolis.