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Katrina's Aftermath; Lives And History Adrift

New Orleans archives and personal records are among millions of pages lost or damaged.

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.
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.
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.