Responding to Hurricane Katrina: Report from Mississippi

Prepared by SAA President Richard Pearce-Moses

September 21, 2005—Three weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, a small team was able to visit some of the archival repositories in the areas of Mississippi hit hardest by the storm. The team sought to show the profession’s support for archivists and to ask the people on the front lines how the profession can respond in ways that will truly help given the current situation.

The team included David Carmicheal, President of the Council of State Archivists and State Archivist for Georgia; Richard Pearce-Moses, President of the Society of American Archivists and Director of Digital Government Information for the Arizona State Library and Archives; and Debra Hess Norris, Chair of Heritage Preservation and Chair of the Art Conservation Department at the University of Delaware. Other partners who helped organize the trip included the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators (NAGARA), the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Council of State Library Administrators (COSLA), and the Society of Southwest Archivists (SSA).

On Sunday, September 18, Norris led an informal workshop on recovery of wet photographic materials. That evening, the staff of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH), including Department Director Hank Holmes and State Archivist Julia Young, briefed the team on what they had seen on visits to hurricane-ravaged areas during the previous two weeks.

On Monday, September 19, MDAH staff members Grady Howell and Jeff Rogers led the team on site visits to several repositories in Waveland, Gulfport, and Biloxi.

The team observed that collections typically were either lost entirely or survived the storm but were damaged subsequently by high humidity and mold, with few collections in between. The Waveland City Hall and two buildings at Beauvoir (the Jefferson Davis home) were demolished, leaving only a slab or a pile of rubble; records left in the buildings were destroyed. At other sites, records in buildings without power were damp from the high humidity, often exacerbated by water damage to the building. Many records at the Biloxi Public Library were submerged and will need to be salvaged. Much of the damage to records came from a storm surge that swept through buildings, destroyed their contents, and then retreated. This suggests that conditions may be different in New Orleans, where the water resulted from a broken levy rather than a storm surge and where damage has probably resulted from standing water rather than surging water.

There was little evidence of paper in the debris surrounding homes and businesses. Shreds of fabric and plastic were caught in trees, but it appears that the power of the storm surge completely destroyed paper. A few plastic data disks and videotapes were scattered around, although caked in grime, and an occasional photograph was seen among the debris. In a few instances, a file cabinet could be seen standing (although often missing drawers), and in every case observed, the records were already heavy with mold.

Nothing can be done for the collections that were destroyed. The top priority in protecting surviving records is to arrest the growth of mold. For those records that are merely damp, getting them into an air-conditioned environment is a high priority. Power is still off in many areas, however, and even where it is available there is the concern that it is not always safe to restore power to damaged buildings. It is critical that these records be removed from damaged buildings to ensure that they are not destroyed during efforts to clean up the buildings. The (smaller number of) records that were soaked must be (and are being) transferred to freezer trucks when possible, but often access to those collections is complicated by hazardous conditions in the building.

At the same time that individuals are working to care for their collections, they are also struggling to recover their own lives. One individual with whom we spoke has lost his home, and another had six feet of water on the first floor. Both, though, were hard at work sorting through damaged records. Their commitment to their work is admirable.

Although a few repositories could potentially use volunteers to help with recovery, the reality is that currently there is no way to accommodate volunteers. In the affected areas, there is no lodging, no potable water, no food. Lodging in Jackson, about 150 miles from the coast, is scarce; MDAH staff members have been commuting three hours each way on a nearly daily basis.

Stabilizing the records can buy time. If damp records can be dehumidified to halt mold growth and if wet records can be frozen, people can then take some time to do more careful planning, to find out what FEMA will pay for, and to identify other funding sources. At some time in the future, it will be possible for volunteers to be accommodated.

The team repeatedly asked, “What do you need?” Here’s what we heard:

  1. An air-conditioned space to which damp and wet records can be moved.
  2. Someone to help manage logistics for the transfer and control of records stored in this facility and, in the future, to coordinate volunteers.
  3. Space for accommodating volunteers.
  4. A telephone hotline, staffed by experts, that members of the public might call for advice on recovering their personal papers, photographs, and other records.

MDAH staff members currently are spearheading recovery work, but it is placing enormous demands on their staff and budget. Staff members of the National Archives and Records Administration—and Allen Weinstein personally—are helping to remove bureaucratic barriers. NARA already has released some funds to Mississippi and Louisiana to help with immediate expenses, and it is looking for additional funds to support these efforts.

It may be a month before repositories will be ready for volunteer help in salvaging documents. In the interim, the professional organizations must work together to help find solutions to the immediate problems described above.

The team is putting together a document of “lessons learned.” But one lesson stands out among all others: Even modest efforts at disaster preparedness and prevention often made the difference between destruction and survival of essential records. That’s a lesson everyone can and should take to heart.