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Saturday, September 10, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Soggy archive of life in New Orleans

Los Angeles Times

NEW ORLEANS — The letters lay scattered across the Broad Street 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 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, commercial transactions, along with all the paper that chart the minutia of everyday life.

In the basement of the Civil District Courthouse on Poydras Street, water has lapped over 20 percent 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 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 in preparing 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 Street overpass, a receipt from the jail canteen for tobacco, jalapeño potato chips, peanut butter, two stamps and deodorant was on the ground along with a dog-eared 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 following 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 Archive. 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.

New Orleans, whose property records are based on the old French system, lives on paper. Without access to the records in the Notarial Archive, nobody can buy or sell property in the city, and many insurance claims cannot be settled.

Just a week before the storm, the state had put out a contract to scan and digitize 12 million pages.

At their worst, the floodwaters reached the bottom shelf, wicking up through the dense pages. Had the waters risen higher, "it could very well have been a disaster," Bruno said.

The older part of the archive 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."

Beginning yesterday, all the books from the Notarial Archive were scheduled to be removed from the basement to a climate-controlled storage facility to prevent mildew damage. The sodden, toxic books from the lowest shelf were to 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 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, according to P. Raymond Lamonica, a professor of law at Louisiana State University. Most of the city and state's judicial records are computerized and intact.

Birth certificates, death records and similar documents are all entered in a central computer registry, complete with backup.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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