Archivists hone disaster plans

Thanks to a quick-thinking clerk, when Hurricane Katrina struck Waveland, Miss., the city's vital records were not lost.

BY SIMON GRAF | ATLANTA | April 26, 2006

"Katrina changed the rules obviously."

—Hank Holmes

Thanks to a quick-thinking clerk, when Hurricane Katrina struck Waveland, Miss., the city's vital records were not lost, even though the city hall was washed away, reduced to its very foundation.

That's because the clerk had thought to stash the records in a bank vault next door. The bank was destroyed but the vault was left standing.

But other documents weren't so fortunate. In Jackson County, Miss., a five-foot storm surge flooded the county's records center, collapsing its wooden shelving and causing many records to wash away. All evidence and criminal records in St. Bernardís Parish in Louisiana were lost.

And even worse: Archivists admit the extent of documents lost in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast may never be known.

The disaster revealed weaknesses in how state officials charged with preserving vital documents needed to keep society running handled disasters. Many of them were used to going about a disaster without outside help, as previous calamities only affected a single building or town.

But Katrina affected hundreds of miles of coastline and dozens upon dozens of towns and agencies. Emergency management teams and state archivists were unfamiliar with each other.

"We had not worked with them in the past," said Hank Holmes, director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History said of state and federal emergency management agencies. "We had not involved ourselves as we should have in the overall process. Katrina changed the rules obviously."

Holmes said his agency had difficulties getting in touch with emergency management officials because "we had not established the appropriate communication for the disaster because we had not foreseen the need for it."

Now all that has changed. Hurricane Katrina has spurred state archivists into creating better plans to handle the next disaster while working with emergency management officials before the next crisis strikes.

"The state archives may have not have had relationships with emergency management folks in a state. Those are the gaps we want to identify and do something about. In the end we want to have a plan makes that state prepared for the next major disaster," said David Carmicheal, director of The Georgia Archives and the president of the Council of State Archivists. "The reach (of Katrina) was so huge that all of the things that you would normally do was turned on its head. No disaster previously had required this kind of close cooperation between archivists, records managers and emergency planners."

The archivists say they are working with emergency planners to help identify critical documents that should be saved in a disaster - everything from property deeds to car titles, medical records and criminal records.

"When you have a disaster like this even the emergency planners need to know where are the infrastructure records - where are the records of the construction of that bridge. Where are the sewer records," Carmicheal said.

Archivists can help those displaced by a disaster by providing them with the important documents they need to help those people re-establish their identities.

"What we have started thinking about - in response to the next disaster is a first response to go in and stabilize those governmental records that were in jeopardy and get out of the way," Holmes said. "It allows for continuity of government because we have stabilized the records. As the community starts to rebuild, these records are going to be needed."

The archivists say they also can help train emergency planners on how to safely preserve vital records. Carmicheal said that his archivist team had discovered that National Guard troops in Bay St. Louis, Miss., were not preserving courthouse records because the troops had received conflicting instructions on how to preserve the documents.

"So the records were just sitting there," he said. "State archivists need to be there soon enough to leave instructions so the right thing is done."

Carmicheal says archivists should create a placard with proper instructions that can be nailed to a building after a disaster.

"When you have limited resources you have to identify what are the most essential things. Obviously life and safety is the first and you've got to figure out food and water and how to rescue them. We just take the records for granted. They are easy to take for granted," he added. "We just don't realize how dependent we are on records until something like this happens and you don't have it."

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Related Links:

The Georgia Archives

Louisiana Division of Archives, Records Management and History

Mississippi Department of Archives and History


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