A one-of-a-kind collection of older records was kept in the New Orleans Notarial Archives Research Center, some dating to the 1700s. Many fragile and crucial records, most of which were on linen, were jeopardized by wind-driven rain that passed through windows shattered by Hurricane Katrina.
The Notarial Archives kept an equally enormous collection of records just a few blocks away, inside the basement of the New Orleans Civil District Courthouse, which was initially built as a bomb shelter during the Cold War. Water soaked more than 20% of the 60,000 leather-bound books placed on metal shelves. These books contained the records of all modern-day property transfers in New Orleans.
Although most governments have digitized real estate records, abstractors still do hand searches in the courthouse basement archive. No one in New Orleans may buy or sell a property without access to the documents in the Notarial Archives, and many insurance claims cannot be settled.
“A typical day would include 20 to 30 people poring through the brown leather books, tracing the history of individual land parcels, confirming the validity of titles, or recording land purchases,” said Stephen P. Bruno, New Orleans custodian of historical records and gubernatorial appointee.
Bruno was planning to hire a company to convert many of the Notarial Archives' 12 million records to computers, but Katrina was the first to strike. Bringing muddy, snake-infested, bacteria-laden water-swamp cellars with her causing the city to be closed off by the National Guard.
Fortunately, Bruno was prepared for natural calamities by having a disaster plan in place. As part of its disaster plan, the Notarial Archives was registered with Polygon’s Code Blue program, which provides priority emergency services in the event of a disaster. As a result, soon after Katrina struck, Polygon's document recovery professionals stationed themselves outside the city, ready to respond.
“The city was under a state of martial law, and we could not gain entry,” said Eddy Pokluda, Polygon’s national business development manager. “This was frustrating because there’s a short amount of time in which water-damaged documents can be saved.”
Caught in a desperate situation, Bruno used the only means of communicating in the stricken city and placed a call to WWL-AM radio to arrange an emergency travel authorization that gave archive officials and Polygon experts security clearance into New Orleans. Polygon then launched its mammoth restoration effort, dispatching equipment, and personnel to both the New Orleans Civil District Courthouse and the research center.
Working as quickly as possible, the team worked to remove the bacteria-laden, snake-infested standing water by bringing in generators to operate powerful pumps. Then, crews spent 36 consecutive hours extracting thousands of gallons of water. Additionally, a reptile expert was called in to remove the snakes from the courthouse basement.
After the water was gone, crews consisting of 60 people began removing the 60,000 volumes. Books were carried out of the basement, loaded into boxes, inventoried, and then placed onto pallets. When a pallet was completed, it was forklifted into a Polygon freezer truck. Once inside, the documents became frozen, eliminating any further damage from the liquid phase of water.
It took 10 days to remove all 60,000 volumes from the courthouse basement and two days to remove damaged volumes from the research center, with the materials filling 23 refrigeration trailers. All the work took place under difficult conditions, including a city curfew, checkpoint delays, no communications infrastructure, fuel shortages, road blockages, flooding, no electricity, limited housing, and lack of food and water.
As soon as the trailer was fully loaded, the truck drove to Polygon’s suburban Chicago document processing facility. There, the Polygon accelerated vacuum freeze-dry system, the most sophisticated method available today to restore water-damaged materials, treated the precious paper.
All the documents were restored so they could again be used in day-to-day activities. “We are happy to report that we didn’t lose one page of the 60,000 notarial volumes housed in the basement,” said Bruno. “There was only minimal damage to some books due to dirt, but that was expected. It was a monumental task to save the records. Polygon met the challenge and assembled a team of experts to get the job done in battleground conditions,” said Bruno.
Deterioration of paper, blurring of ink, cockling, and mold growth are all problems that become worse with time. Polygon prides itself in coming to your project fast, well organized, and well-prepared.
Cleaning and Decontamination
After the water is removed, the documents are cleaned and all micro-organisms, such as bacteria, are eliminated by gamma radiation. This eliminates health hazards when the documents are returned to service.
Massive libraries of information require strict inventory and organization when undergoing recovery. Keeping inventory is an important element of our operation since it allows us to return items in a well-organized and ready-to-use state.