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Lives and History Adrift on a Soggy Paper Trail
New Orleans archives and personal records are among millions of pages lost or damaged.
By Alan Zarembo and Thomas H. Maugh II
Times Staff Writers
September 9, 2005
NEW ORLEANS — The letters lay scattered across the Broad Avenue overpass amid abandoned orange prison shirts and Bibles.
Inmates had carried the neat packets of envelopes out of the Orleans Parish Jail as they fled the floodwaters, but on the last leg of their evacuation — a 40-foot scramble down a makeshift scaffolding to waiting buses — they were told to leave everything behind.
The letters now flutter on the pavement, occasionally drifting into the oily water to join a vast and soggy archive of life in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina.
Paper is everywhere — floating in the water, trapped in tree branches, ground into curbside mud.
Millions of pages are soaked in courthouse basements, businesses and homes. Among the items are records of families, land ownership and commercial transactions, along with all the paper that charts the minutiae of everyday life.
In the basement of the Civil District Courthouse on Poydras Street, three blocks from the Superdome, water has lapped over 20% of the 60,000 leather-bound books of the New Orleans Notarial Archives. The books contain the records of all property transfers in the city that have occurred in the modern era.
"We don't have deeds in New Orleans," said Stephen P. Bruno, custodian of the archives. "Whatever our records say, that's who owns the property."
Farther down Poydras Street, at the Amoco Building, the Notarial Archives maintains an equally large collection of older documents, some dating to the 1700s.
Many are handwritten, such as a power of attorney signed by the pirate Jean Lafitte giving his brother Pierre authority to demand reparations from Washington for damages suffered in the War of 1812.
"It's the single most perfect collection of these documents in North America," said historian Thomas Ingersoll of Ohio State University, who used them to prepare his thesis on 19th century slavery.
The city is preparing for a massive exodus of paper, trucking out valuable documents so they can be freeze-dried and cleaned by hand.
But for most of the paper blown through broken windows in the hurricane or flushed out into the city by the flood, there is little hope.
Some is precious; some is not.
On the Broad Avenue overpass, a receipt from the jail canteen for tobacco, jalapeno potato chips, peanut butter, two stamps and deodorant was on the ground along with a dogeared photograph of a woman posing next to a Camaro and a collection of newspaper death notices, mostly of young men shot to death.
There was a letter in the pile written on white, lined paper in black felt tip pen with a postscript: "Yes! I will marry you, just be sure this is what you want!"
In the chaos after Hurricane Katrina, saving paper has been a lesser priority.
It took a week and a half for workers to begin the long process of salvaging the Notarial Archives. The basement room had filled with about 6 inches of water and smelled like a sewer.
By Thursday, temporary lights had been installed, and the room throbbed to the sound of powerful pumps.
Before Katrina, the archives pulsed to a different rhythm. At any given time, 20 to 30 people would be poring through the brown leather books stored on metal shelves, tracing the history of individual land parcels, checking the validity of titles or recording land purchases.
New Orleans, whose property records are based on the old French system, lives on paper. Without access to the records in the Notarial Archives, nobody can buy or sell property in the city, and many insurance claims cannot be settled.
The floodwaters reached the bottom shelf, seeping up through the dense pages. Just a week before the storm, the state had sought a contract to scan and digitize 12 million pages.
Had the waters risen higher, "it could very well have been a disaster," Bruno said.
The older part of the archives in the Amoco Building was even luckier.
Those documents, known as legajos, Spanish for a dossier or file, are kept on the third floor of the building and escaped water damage. Most of the documents are handwritten in Spanish, French and English.
With the loss of electricity, however, the documents are still threatened by the high humidity.
"The owner of the building won't let us install an air conditioner, so we'll have to remove those also," Bruno said. "We'll have to do whatever is necessary to save the books."
On Canal Street, the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park is facing a similar problem. It escaped the flood, but the humidity is threatening old sheet music, early manuscripts and other artifacts, center spokesman Bill Line said.
Bruno and his colleagues have hired Chicago-based Munters Corp. to save the Notarial Archives. Beginning today, all the books will be removed from the basement to a climate-controlled storage facility to prevent mildew damage. The sodden books from the lowest shelf will be trucked out of the city and flown to Chicago for safekeeping and repair work.
First, they will be frozen, a process that halts deterioration and microbial contamination. The frozen books will then be placed in a vacuum chamber, where, at a very low pressure, the ice crystals will vaporize without passing through the liquid state.
They will then be cleaned by hand and sterilized to kill off microorganisms from the water.
"We have to be concerned about people [who will be] handling them down the road," said Lauren Reid, vice president and general manager of Munters.
The damage at the Notarial Archives is the exception rather than the rule, said P. Raymond Lamonica, a professor of law at Louisiana State University. Most of the city and state's judicial records are computerized and intact, he said.
Birth certificates, death records and similar documents are all entered into a central computer registry, complete with backup.
Similarly, all but the most recent trial records are also computerized and safe, he said. For many recent cases, court reporters might have copies of the transcripts at home or will be able to reconstruct them.
"We've lost records before in courthouse fires," Lamonica said. "You can reconstruct them if necessary. It's doable."
At Tenet Healthcare Corp., which had to close four hospitals in New Orleans, lab records, medical records and other clinical information are stored online.
"The records are all there up until the point that the facilities lost power," said spokesman Steve Campanini.
Under a broken umbrella at the entrance to the St. Claude bridge in the submerged 9th Ward, New Orleans Police Officer Robert Macklin stood guard over a road with few cars but plenty of trash.
Off to the side of the bridge, the top of a broken telephone pole jutted from the mud like a giant crucifix.
"You'll probably find all kinds of things once the water goes down," he said while scanning the muck.
Everything around him looked like garbage. There were heaps of discarded military meal packages, a baby shoe, a dead pigeon, a coloring book, a Barbie doll in a miniskirt with red go-go boots, a notebook.
"They once belonged to somebody," said Macklin as he tried to stay in the shade of the umbrella. "The traditions and the genes are so thick in the South. You have a lot of pictures and family heirlooms. Family trees, you know, to show generation after generation who they come from, who their great-grandfather was. All that is gone."
On a block of St. Charles Avenue downtown, the median was littered with photographs. The storm had wiped them clean, leaving only splotches of color.
Each piece of paper held a mystery of whom it belonged to, how it ended up where it was and what it meant to someone.
With so much destruction, each scrap has become a memento of a past world.
One inmate at the Orleans Parish Jail left his collection of poetry behind. He wrote in one poem on a yellow legal pad:
I done been to hell and back seen wars
received scars — stole cars
just to get a spot 4 myself
In one of these wards.
A medical report from 2000 on William Barbo was lying on the pavement on Poydras Street. It was sent to a lawyer whose office was on the 20th floor of a building half a block away.
In the 9th Ward, a pile of plastic cards belonging to Quinntin Senegal ended up on an overpass — a Louisiana state identification card, a dental insurance card and a 2004 season pass to the amusement park.
Among the scattered papers were a few pieces that were like time capsules, holding within them the fear before the storm.
Throughout the city, toppled newspaper boxes still contained copies of the local Times-Picayune with the headline from Aug. 28, the day the evacuation of the city was ordered: "KATRINA TAKES AIM."
On a few pieces of paper, people fleeing the city scribbled their thoughts before heading off to parts unknown.
Near officer Macklin was a purple notebook. Someone had started a letter in pencil.
"To Sharoy Sharome Mom"
"I love your so much that my life was going. But God kept me here for a reason so that I can raisd my lil one."
The rest of the book was empty.
Zarembo reported from New Orleans and Maugh from Los Angeles.
Note: The Times has saved the letters and documents mentioned in this article and will try to return them to their owners.
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times