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Saving history from a hurricane

Teams of archivists are rushing to the Gulf Coast on an urgent mission to recover priceless records damaged by Katrina.

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When two feet of water flooded the basement of the New Orleans courthouse a month ago, archivist Stephen Bruno faced a huge problem. All the books on the bottom shelves were wet. He knew the soggy volumes, containing important public records, must be put in freezers to halt the growth of mold until they could be dried out.

"I made a public plea for help," says Mr. Bruno, custodian of notarial records for Orleans Parish. "Once they finished saving people, I became deeply concerned that we had to save records."

Books, documents, and photographs in public and private collections remain an invisible part of rescue operations in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. From courthouses, libraries, and businesses to lawyers' offices and homes, the need is the same: to dry out papers and save as many documents as possible.

Salvage efforts have been hurt by poor access to storm-ravaged areas and by a lack of electricity.

"Without power, there's no way to control relative humidity," says Sharon Bennett, a conservator from Charleston, S.C., who spent last week in New Orleans assessing the damage to cultural collections. "There's a very short amount of time before the damage becomes irreversible. You can't get the stains out."

At the New Orleans courthouse, crews spent a day and a half pumping out thousands of gallons of water. Snakes slithered across the muddy floor. After removing 60,000 books, they stored dry volumes in trucks in the parking lot. They loaded wet books into two freezer trucks, to be transported to a restoration firm near Chicago.

"Most documents were land deed records, very old," says Lauren Reid, an executive vice president at Munters Moisture Control Service, a restoration firm in Glendale Heights, Ill. "Louisiana is a Napoleonic state. There's a lot of historic records in that state."

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