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.
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
Administrators (COSLA), and the Society of Southwest Archivists (SSA).
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
- An air-conditioned space to which damp and wet records can be moved.
to help manage logistics for the transfer and control of records stored
in this facility and, in the future, to coordinate volunteers.
- Space for accommodating
- A telephone hotline, staffed by experts, that members of the
public might call for advice on recovering their personal papers, photographs,
MDAH staff members currently are spearheading recovery work, but it
is placing enormous demands on their staff and budget. Staff members of the
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.
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.
Report of Hurricane
Katrina Damage Assessment (PDF)
Responding to Hurricane Katrina: Team
to Visit Mississippi (September