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Katrina: What Historians Are Doing

As emergency officials continue to find and rescue survivors, recover bodies, and clean up the wreckage from Hurricane Katrina, which devastated a significant portion of the Gulf Coast nearly two weeks ago, efforts are also underway by various history and archival organizations to pitch in and begin to survey the damage done to sites of historical significance and to preserve as much as possible. This rescue and salvage effort takes on special importance in a part of the country that is especially rich with historic sites, artifacts, and archives.

In New Orleans, aerial photos indicate that the French Quarter is relatively dry and intact. Locations such as the Caf du Monde, Preservation Hall, and St. Louis Cathedral appear to have survived the brunt of the storm. Museum directors have also determined that the New Orleans Museum of Art, home to one of the most important collections in the south, has also been spared from severe damage.

However, other sections of the city were not so fortunate. Virtually everything in the Latin Quarter and the Garden District suffered some damage. Preliminary reports indicate that the New Orleans Public Library was hit hard and its archive of city records, which are housed in the basement of the building, probably experienced flooding. At the New Orleans Notarial Archives, which hold some 40 million pages of signed acts compiled by notaries of new Orleans over three centuries, initial efforts to save historical documents were unsuccessful. A Swedish document salvage firm, hired by the archives to freeze-dry records to remove the moisture from them, was turned away by uniformed personnel as they attempted to enter the city. There are a considerable number of freezer trucks available as soon as they are allowed to access areas currently closed. In the case of both the public library and the notarial archives, time is of the essence as humidity, mold, and water damage may decimate these collections in a matter of days.

Many of the city's oldest historic neighborhoods were completely lost to the floods. The U.S. Mint, which was once captured by the Confederate Army, is missing part of its roof, while uncertainty remains about the artifacts inside.

Katrina has affected other important historic sites in Louisiana as well. Fort Jackson, located south of New Orleans, location of an important Civil War naval battle, has suffered extensive flooding. In addition, the Louisiana State Museum suffered moderate to extensive damage.

In Mississippi, the Old Capitol Museum had a third of its copper roof blown off, resulting in the flooding of a storage room and exhibit area. Beauvoir, the home of Jefferson Davis, located in Biloxi, was virtually destroyed. Throughout the ravished parts of the Gulf Coast, numerous trees and old houses have been lost, in many cases with no hope of recovery. Many unanswered questions remain as to the condition of historical artifacts that were in private hands, or the condition of other archival collections that may have survived the floodwaters.

As the recovery efforts continue, historical preservation teams will begin the long process of retrieving documents, photographs, and other important pieces of history that have helped to shape a nation. What follows is a summary of the emergency recovery and assistance efforts we know about.

An emergency team from the National Park Service Museum Resource Center will soon be arriving in New Orleans to begin its preservation work, salvaging every artifact they possibly can and protecting them from mildew. They will be concentrating specifically on artifacts located at the Jazz Museum, the Louis Armstrong home, the archives at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, and the Chalmette battlefield. The National Park Service has also assembled a technical leaflet entitled After the Flood: Emergency Stabilization and Conservation Methods, which offers suggestions on how to prevent additional damage and how to maintain historical integrity: Click here.

The Heritage Emergency Task Force is also stepping in to assist in the recovery. This task force was created for the purpose of assisting cultural heritage institutions in the protection of their collections in the event of natural disasters. Co-sponsored by Heritage Preservation, Inc. and the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), it includes over 30 federal agencies. At the present time, the task force is working to coordinate information with the various historical institutions along the Gulf Coast and are encouraging everyone to donate money to the Disaster Relief Fund, as health and safety remain the highest priorities. The FEMA web page and the Heritage Emergency National Task Force webpage have links to hurricane response information posted that cover such topics as how to get aid (both individuals and governments), how to respond and salvage, and how to mitigate damage.

The Library of Congress will be offering free rewash services to institutions impacted by the hurricane for motion picture films, provided that the film can be transported to the lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Those interested in the offer should contact Lance Watsky at lwatsky@sos.state.ga.us.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is making available $1 million in hurricane relief for Gulf Coast cultural resources. The emergency grants of up to $30,000 are being made available through the executive directors of the state humanities councils in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana and are available to libraries, museums, colleges, universities and other cultural and historical institutions affected by the hurricane. For additional information about the program, tap into http:www.humanities.gov .

In order to help with assessing the damage that has been done to other historical institutions, the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), working with the American Association of Museums, has put together a "first reports" webpage that can be accessed at http://www.aam-us.org/aamlatest/news/HurricaneFirstReports.cfm; other information is being updated constantly at http:www.aaslh.org and at the AAM website at http:www.aam-us.org/aamlatest/news/hurricane.cfm . The AASLH has also established a Historical Resources Recovery Fund in which 100% of the dollars secured will be used for the recovery of historical resources in the affected states. Additional information is available at http://www.aaslh.org/katrina.htm . A disaster relief for museums web site established by the International Council on Museums (ICOM) also provides exhaustive and updated information on the effects of the disaster with regard to museums; visit the site here.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is also raising funds to assist in the recovery of historical properties and is looking for volunteers skilled in preservation, architecture, engineering, and small business development. People interested in serving on one of the assessment teams scheduled to go to affected areas when allowed in should go to the Trust's webpage at http://www.nationaltrust.org/ for further information.

The Society of American Archivists (SAA) has begun a list of volunteers willing to help with disaster recovery. Interested parties can visit here; additional information including a joint statement by the archival community can be viewed here . One of the first organizations to act especially swiftly in efforts to assist is the Society of Southwest Archivists (SSA). That organization has established a weblog to share information about colleagues and others in Louisiana and Mississippi who have been affected by the hurricane. It can be viewed here or contact Brenda Gunn at bgunn@mail.utexas.edu for additional information. One bit of good news is that there do not appear to be any archivists missing - all have been accounted for and have reported in to their home institutions.

The Organization of American Historians (OAH) along with the American Historical Association and the Southern Historical Association have joined hands to establish a "historians to historians" message board; it is a place where historians can offer or request assistance. Several categories such as "Need help-housing" and "Need help-transportation" have been set up to facilitate communication and assistance. For the site, visit the OAH webpage at http:www.oah.org where the URL link (still under development at this writing) is prominently displayed.

On the academic front, while many of the colleges and universities affected by Hurricane Katrina will soon resume classes, Tulane University (information about Tulane is available at http://emergency.tulane.edu ) and Loyola University will remain closed until the spring semester in order to repair the damages to their infrastructure, technology, and communication systems. Students enrolled at both Tulane and Loyola are being encouraged to attend nearby schools and to transfer credits. The History News Network (HNN) has established a blog where the Tulane history students and faculty can communicate with each other. It can be viewed at http://hnn.us/blogs/45.html . In addition, the Chronicle of Higher Education has created a webpage where affected colleges, associations, and government agencies providing assistance can post messages; go to http://chronicle.com/katrina .

Colleges and Universities across the country are offering temporary admission for students directly affected by the hurricane and its aftermath. For example, some schools in Texas, where many residents of Louisiana fled, will allow out-of-state students to enroll at in-state tuition rates. The University of Miami has said that they will allow students to take classes there, collect tuition, and hold it in escrow for the colleges that the students would otherwise attend. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History has also said that they would offer temporary positions to the faculty members of the affected universities.

Read entire article at Newsletter of the National Coalition for History