History and Archives Communities Rally to Help in Hurricane Katrina's Wake

Bruce Craig, October 2005

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 in early September, efforts are also underway by various history and archival organizations (see box on this page for details about the response of the AHA, the Organization of American Historians, and the Southern Historical Association) 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 Café 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, have probably been damaged. At the New Orleans Notarial Archives, which holds some 40 million pages of signed acts compiled by notaries of New Orleans over three centuries, initial efforts to save historical documents were stymied. A Swedish document salvage firm, hired by the archives to freeze-dry records to remove the moisture from them, was turned away by officials as they attempted to enter the city.

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 almost completely destroyed.

Throughout the ravaged parts of the Gulf Coast, numerous trees and old houses have been lost, in many cases with no hope of recovery. The condition of historical artifacts that were in private hands, or the condition of other archival collections that may have survived the floodwaters is not yet known.

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 (see related article for useful URLs).

An emergency team from the National Park Service Museum Resource Center will soon be arriving in New Orleans to begin its preservation work, salvaging as many artifacts as they 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: http://palimpsest.
stanford.edu/byorg/nps/npsafter.html
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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.

Among other major groups providing assistance of various kinds are the Library of Congress, which will be offering free rewash services to affected institutions with collections of motion picture films; the Heritage Emergency Task Force, which was created for the purpose of assisting cultural heritage institutions in the protection of their collections in the event of natural disasters; the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), which has put together—along with the American Association of Museums—a "first reports" web page at http://www.aam-us.org/aamlatest/news/HurricaneFirstReports.cfm and established a Historical Resources Recovery Fund; the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which 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; the Society of American Archivists, which is compiling a list of volunteers willing to help with disaster recovery; and the Society of Southwest Archivists, which has established a weblog to share information about colleagues and others in Louisiana and Mississippi who have been affected by the hurricane.

On the academic front, while many of the colleges and universities affected by Hurricane Katrina expect to resume classes soon, Tulane University (see http://emergency.tulane.edu for updated information) and Loyola University New Orleans 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. History News Network has established a blog (http://hnn.us/blogs/45.html) where the Tulane history students and faculty can communicate with each other. In addition, the Chronicle of Higher Education has created a web page 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 it would offer temporary positions to the faculty members of the affected universities. The Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Minnesota has offered short-term fellowships to scholars displaced by Katrina.

—Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History. A more detailed version of this report is the lead story in the NCH Washington Update for September 9, 2005; it can be accessed online at http://www.h-net.org/~nch/.