The Louisiana State Museum, Hurricane Katrina, & the New Orleans Mint

I am going to talk about the Louisiana State Museum's efforts to recover from the effects of hurricane Katrina in the initial months following the storm and its impact on our film and audio collections. There was significant damage to the roof of the New Orleans Mint building which housed the majority of the Louisiana State Museum collections including the museum's archive and library.

Introduction

The Louisiana State Museum operates nine sites in the New Orleans French Quarter. These historic buildings include the Cabildo and Presbytere on Jackson Square, the 1850 House which is located within the Lower Pontalba apartments, the Arsenal, the Creole House, the Jackson House, Madame John's Legacy, the Old US Mint, and the LSM collections storage facility at 1000 Chartres Street. Also included in the Louisiana State Museum system are the Wedell-Williams Memorial Aviation Museum in Patterson, the Old Courthouse in Natchitoches, the E.D. White Historic Site in Thibodaux and the newest facility, the Louisiana State Museum—Baton Rouge.

The Louisiana State Museum houses, exhibits and interprets the largest extant collection of artifacts and manuscripts documenting Louisiana history and actively collects artifacts over broad areas that reflect the State’s historic events and cultural diversity. Few other museum collections have the scope and range of artifacts from so many cultural areas of the State. Our departments include visual arts, costumes and textiles, music, science and technology, decorative arts, and the Louisiana Historical Center—a library and archive that houses our manuscript, printed material, early newspaper and map collections.

Movement of Collections

It has been the practice of the Museum for many years to move collections, where possible, from the first floors of all of the buildings to central rooms on the 2nd floors when its looks as if a storm will threaten the area. This was done by museum staff before hurricane Katrina made landfall.

Our collections are so large that it would be impractical to evacuate the contents of the entire museum complex before an oncoming storm. It would take months to do and would therefore nullify any notion of evacuation. I and others, since hurricane Katrina, have recommended the idea of building a new collections storage facility outside of the city and near a state university so that a master's level conservation program can be developed in conjunction with operation of the storage facility. By storing the majority of the un-exhibited collections out of the flood plane and away from a possible storm surge, this would allow us to concentrate more time on caring for collections that are on exhibit in the historic buildings in the French Quarter. Of course, the biggest obstacle to the idea is the lack of funds in post-Katrina/Rita Louisiana. It is hoped though this idea will come to fruition in the not too distant future.

Old US Mint Roof

The Mint, a National Historic Landmark had been considered the sturdiest of the buildings administered by the Museum. For many years the Mint had been used as a hurricane shelter. It is also on the highest ground of all the buildings in the Museum complex.  It came as a surprise to many of us when we discovered that it was not one of the cupolas from the Cabildo or Presbytere that had been removed in the storm (as had happened once before in 1900) but was instead the roof of the Mint.

About sixty percent of the copper cladding on the Mint roof was removed by high winds. [The copper cladding was installed during renovations of the building in 1978.] A number of access panels and skylights were torn from their hinges and window panes broken. Although a layer of plywood remained in place on most of the roof, there were many places for rain water to make its way into the building.

Staff Evacuation

The majority of our staff evacuated the city before the storm made landfall. Consequently, our work force was scattered across the state and country. We had curatorial staff in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Alexandria, Houston, Dallas, St. Louis, Tampa, and Jackson—that's not to mention the scattered staff from our police force and maintenance department. Before the storm the Museum had a staff of well over a hundred people. In the initial weeks after the storm, only a handful of employees from the curatorial, maintenance and police divisions were able to make their way to our temporary headquarters in the Baton Rouge museum facility. It was very difficult to make contact with one another via cell phone in the weeks and months following the storm. Everyone had the problem of finding a place to stay and those caring for children or elderly relatives often had an especially difficult time. The Baton Rouge museum exhibits had not been fully installed at the time of the storm and it was decided by the administration to use the building as a shelter.

I, along with my family, evacuated Sunday morning, the day before the storm made landfall. We had planned to go to Houston but we got stuck in the evacuation traffic and it ended up taking us about twelve hours before we were near Lafayette. It would normally have been a little over a two hour drive. We decided to stay in my father's home town of Jennings, Louisiana at little ways down the highway. We stayed in Jennings for the first week or so and then found a place in Lafayette. My wife, Karen and I had tried to find a place in Baton Rouge but could not. The city had already doubled in population. We ended up living in Lafayette for over a month and I commuted to Baton Rouge and New Orleans before we finally moved back to the New Orleans area in early October.

Immediately after the storm I was having a difficult time contacting the Museum collections staff. There were certain cell phones that I could get through to after a number of tries and there were others that I just could not no matter how much I tried. Trying to contact staff to make sure they were safe and finding places for them to live involved most of our time in the weeks following the storm. During this period, the only people from the collections staff who were able to make it back to the Museum to report for work on a daily basis were our registrar, Ann Woodruff and I. Those on the collections staff who were living in other parts of the state or nation would come in for designated meetings.

Returning to French Quarter

We first returned to the French Quarter with an assembled team to patch the Mint roof and begin removing artifacts that were affected by rain water on Wednesday August 31st.

There was damage to a number of the other buildings but it was minimal in comparison to the Mint. We found, fortunately,that the majority of the damage at the Mint was to public areas like the auditorium and hallways where for the most part artifacts were not exhibited and stored. Water did make its way into a changing gallery space where Audubon prints were on exhibit but fortunately the prints themselves did not get wet and we were able to temporarily move them into another part of the building that was still dry. Another exception was a holding area on the third floor where a small percentage of the jazz collection was affected. After patching the roof with tarpaper as best we could we began removing the affected artifacts from the building.


The jazz artifacts that were affected by water—they included mostly books, scrapbooks, photographs, and LPs—needed to be stabilized immediately before further damage occurred from mold and other resulting problems. The staff of the Hill Memorial Library at LSU, the Louisiana State Archives, and the University of Lafayette graciously cared for the triaged artifacts.


Jack Stewart, a noted jazz historian and now husband of our registrar, Ann Woodruff, provided invaluable assistancewiththe triaging and re-housing of artifacts and files from the jazz collection. There were a number of trips that were taken from the Baton Rouge museum base into the French Quarter before we had removed all of the artifacts that were in areas that received water.

No Power

The electricity remained off for around a month in the French Quarter. An HVAC system the size of the unit servicing the Mint building requires a very large generator and a great amount of fuel to keep it running. Efforts by our administration to secure such a generator were unsuccessful (which is understandable considering we were in competition with other institutions like hospitals).Consequently, the nearly half-million artifacts that remained in the building were without climate control at the height of the summer for approximately a month. Our film collection was stored in a number of refrigerators at the Mint. This lack of power was not unique to the Mint. The same conditions held for all of our buildings in the French Quarter.

We had a number of conservators assess the collections and conditions during this period including a team from the American Association of State and Local History. It was ultimately decided to remove all of the artifacts from the Mint to a temporary storage location in the Baton Rouge area.

Power On

Once the power came back on and the elevators were functioning again at the Mint a museum packing and transfer company was hired to move the collections. It took them a month and a half to move the collections from the 77,000 square foot building with two to four tractor trailer loads a day, six days a week. The move included the exhibit on the history of the New Orleans Mint itself, the Jazz exhibit, the Louisiana Historical Center, the Newcomb pottery exhibit, the entire jazz instrument collection and archive, a large part of the visual arts collection, and the majority of the decorative arts and science & technology collections. The move was made while we were still contractually obligated to go forward with the installation of the exhibits in the new Baton Rouge museum so that our lack of staff was compounded by the need to be in two different cities and on two major projects at once! We lost approximately 35% of our staff in the months following the storm.

Film & Audio Collections

We moved the film and reel-to-reel collections to our storage facility at 1000 Chartres Street. We have since requested estimates from various film and audio specialist for an assessment of the collections. Our initial hope was that FEMA would help us pay for all or some of the assessment costs but this does not look likely. We are now exploring other funding sources for an assessment and recommendation for long-term care of the collections.

Before the storm we were in the process of transferring and digitizing our quarter inch reel-to-reel collection which includes New Orleans Jazz Club programs, jam sessions, and live performances by traditional New Orleans Jazz musicians. These recordings can be heard on the Louis Digital Library website.

This digital collection is a part of a larger project entitled LaGumbo: A Recipe for Empowerment, which is funded through an Institute of Museum and Library Services National Leadership Grant. The Louisiana State Museum portion of the project resumed in March of 2006.

Since the storm we have a received a grant of $5,000 from the Grammy Foundation for the preservation of six films from the jazz collection. The project involves having internegatives, viewing copies and DVDs made from the 16 mm films. We have also applied for a grant from ReJazz New Orleans sponsored by Hibernian Bank and Capital One to preserve twelve films in our collection and we are in the process of applying to the National Film Preservation Foundation for work on three films from our jazz collection. Also, we have been in conversation with the Center for Home Movies regarding the possible preservation of three films that document recovery efforts following hurricane Betsy.

Recommendations

If I have any general recommendations for disaster preparedness they are to have recovery supplies on site in addition to those that can be evacuated with essential personnel and to have regular meetings with staff members to review contingency plans, to maintain awareness, and to foster thought processes that incorporate the flexibility required to navigate—as best as one can—the infinity of possible disasters.

Also, having a predetermined rallying point or points is important, as is, having on hand a list of all cell phone numbers and personal email addresses of essential personnel. Depending on the magnitude of the disaster personal email accounts can be accessed at public library computer stations in an unaffected area.

Thank you!!!

On behalf of the Louisiana State Museum I would like to express our deepest gratitude to Associate Dean Faye Phillips, Conservator Don Morrison and Curator Elaine Smyth, Hill Memorial Library; State Archivist Dr. Florent Hardy, Jr., Conservator Doug Harrison & Conservator Melanie Counce, Louisiana State Archives; Registrar Joyce Penn, University of Louisiana at Lafayette Art Museum; Jazz Historian Jack Stewart; Objects Conservator Lynn Harrington; Professor Howard Besser and Researcher Kara van Malssen, New York University.