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After Katrina, salvaging pieces of history

Archivists along the Gulf Coast are taking stock after the hurricane washed away rare local documents and photographs.

November 04, 2005|Caryn Rousseau | Associated Press

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. — As Hurricane Katrina approached, local historians were confident a vault filled with precious pre-Civil War pictures, maps and documents cataloging the history of this Gulf Coast community would be safe.

Hopes were high after the storm passed. The former bank building that served as the Pass Christian Historical Society headquarters washed away, but its vault still stood. Workers opened it to find wet, sopping papers -- the ruined history of a seaside town. Most of the collection including town ledgers and old newspapers is lost.

"Apparently, the vault did not hold back water," said Lou Rizzardi, an alderman and historical society member in the town of 6,750. "So it penetrated. Things got damaged because of water."

All up and down the Mississippi Gulf Coast and into New Orleans, archivists and local historians are taking stock. They're worried about the future, but wondering also, what do they have left of their past after Katrina's 145 mph winds and a massive storm surge on Aug. 29 splintered many communities and left others waterlogged.

Many are considering whether it is wise to keep such valuable documents in disaster-prone areas. Elsewhere in Mississippi and New Orleans, archivists swooped in as soon as possible after Katrina to rescue documents, sending them in refrigerated vans to special labs for restoration.

Just a few miles west of Pass Christian, the Hancock County Historical Society in Bay St. Louis fared much better with very little water damage and a vault that held, protecting thousands of documents, including family diaries and thousands of local photographs.

Charles Harry Gray, the executive director, was prepared in case disaster struck. Over the years he had been making copies of all of the group's most treasured documents, including 30,000 pictures. Not one single photograph or record was lost.

They are the pieces of Bay St. Louis' 306-year history that made the town of 8,230 what it is today, he said. Many of the copies were on computer disks and hard drives, others were sent to the University of Southern Mississippi, two hours north in Hattiesburg.

"It is imperative that you have copies in other locations because you never know what's going to happen, what the next catastrophe is going to be, and there certainly will be one," Gray said.

There were no copies in Pass Christian. Rizzardi says the hope for the town's past lies with a local plumber, Billy Bourdin, who kept 3,400 vintage pictures on computer disks as a hobby.

The actual photographs and his eight piles of newspaper clippings are gone, Bourdin said, but the disks survived.

"Stayed on the desk shelf during the storm. So far they've meant very little. Maybe they'll mean a little more now," said Bourdin, who displayed many pictures downtown at his Bourdin Bros. plumbing shop, a two-story brick building whose first floor was gutted by the storm.

Rizzardi finds himself second-guessing his trust in the vault.

Perhaps the state capital at Jackson, about 170 miles to the north, would be a good place to store duplicates, he said. "Somebody off the coast that has a vault, though we would like to have them close at hand so we have access."

Mingo Tingle, a preservationist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, says taking local historical documents away from towns for safekeeping is a touchy subject.

"This is their history," Tingle said. "It belongs to them. We don't want to come and take it from them. If the local historians would just make copies, send the originals to places like Jackson where we have the facilities to file that."

There are archivists working all along the coast, he said, in such cities as Gulfport and Biloxi to help local historians salvage what they can.

"We've had people over there, talking to them, how to save their records. How to dry them out," Tingle said. "Mold grows very quickly."

Mold and water damage affected thousands more documents that could be saved.

Edmond Boudreaux, chairman of the Mississippi Coast Historical and Genealogical Society, climbed into the Biloxi Public Library the day after Katrina to assess the damage to the group's collection, which was housed there.

While most items were safe in a vault upstairs, many items had to be freeze-dried and sent away for treatment, he said.

"Once it's wet, you don't want it to dry out," Boudreaux said. "It will stick together. You can slowly warm it up and bring it apart while it's still moist."

Boudreaux said he never thought Katrina's waters would reach the library.

"Nobody ever dreamed that we would have one do as much damage to the historical integrity," he said.

"You grab things just as you're walking out the door, but we would have taken a lot more. We didn't know it was going to be as bad as it was."

The greatest loss in New Orleans came at City Park, where experts say archives dating back to 1892 were under 6 to 7 feet of water for several weeks.

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