The Historic New Orleans Collection & the Williams Research Center

Upon learning of an impending hurricane on the Saturday morning, August 27, the disaster plan went into action. Vaults, staff and public areas were totally secured. Items on exhibition were stored on the second floor, so that they would be high above flood waters, and have another floor above them.

Visquin curtains were lowered over all shelves.

All equipment was secured and protected.

"Snakes" were placed in front of all doorways, so that in the event of flooding they would inhibit the flow of water.

We also had pre-cut visquin for all equipment.

As we departed the building, our "emergency crash cart" was positioned at the door we would enter into upon return.

Because of pre-cut plywood for all windows, we could do everything very efficiently. By noon on Saturday, we were able to report that the buildings were secure.

On Sunday morning, the storm had greatly strengthened. Preparations were reviewed and additional preparations made where deemed necessary. Immediately after the storm, several staff members discussed going to check on the buildings. However, with so many downed power lines and debris, it was decided to wait until the Tuesday morning. Then on Tuesday morning, with flood waters rising, the plan to go to check on the buildings was aborted.

We then began to learn that our well designed disaster plan was not adequate.

Contact lists, even with alternate numbers, were rendered basically useless, as telephone lines and cell phone towers were equally destroyed. In fact, land lines functioned much better than cell phones. E-mail communications were severely compromised due to the lack of electricity. The major challenge was to reestablish communications. Many staff members acquired cell phones in areas that they evacuated to, and many landed up with new temporary e-mail addresses. We learned that the contact numbers for the appropriate government officials and agencies had also been rendered useless. We were thus left with two challenges; establish contact with the staff and governing body, and securing permission to check on collections. The following will be a chronology of our organization's efforts.

1. Reassembling the staff; contacting the organization's governing body

Once we departed New Orleans communications became increasingly difficult. It took me 24 hours to reach another staff member; 72 hours to reach the board president, and 5 days to reach the director. Slowly but surely, we began assembling the staff list. Several things assisted in this. First, our systems person set up a "Google Group" and a staff only page on our web site.

With approval of the Board President, we received assistance from the state police to return in a state police convoy to New Orleans to secure collections. At that point, telephone numbers for state offices were basically out, or swamped with calls. We were able to get permission only because of "family connections."

Both of our fine arts movers were contacted as the full magnitude of the storm's impact was realized. Both informed me that they had crews in place and ready to assist. Fortunately, due to previously arranged agreement, we were able to move the evacuated items to the Alexandria Museum of Art, about 6 hours from New Orleans, a small museum, but with state of the art facilities.

Finally, on September 8, a police escort took us into New Orleans with three trucks of our fine arts moving company. We had reason to believe our buildings were safe, but due to the risk of fire after a hurricane, we wanted to spread our risk. In addition, we did not know when electricity would return

2. Preparing for the first evacuation trip to New Orleans

As we prepared for the first evacuation trip for New Orleans, several things were done, including preparing a self/carboning inventory/rescue form to be completed for each item removed from the building.

3. Evacuating collections

Given the amount of time it took us to actually get into New Orleans, we only had five hours to inspect and evacuate collections from 3 sites. The challenge was that with a strict curfew in New Orleans of 6 pm, the state police had to have us out of the city by then. In short we were left with 5 hours to evacuate the collections. Mind you, we had no electricity, no elevators. When we departed we had placed all of the emergency items we could possibly need at the door we would enter through. That was critical.

We store certain collections, deemed "priority" in certain locations. No matter what the call number or accession number or manuscript number. It is noted that due to there importance they are stored in certain areas as a group. Therefore, we went to one vault where all of the priority manuscripts were, in another were all of the priority rare books, and in another were all of the priority visual collections. In each case, they were grouped together for ease of retrieval in an emergency situation.

Furthermore, in the case of manuscripts, each storage container has a glow marker on it that assists in retrieval.

Therefore, with our movers and staff, we assembled an assembly line, carefully removing the material, completing the inventory form, and loading the truck. However, we soon found out several things. Batteries go dead faster than you can ever imagine. Secondly, in preparing the collections for the hurricane, we used carts to store books that were being processed. It was a fatal mistake, costing time to remove them from the carts, so that the carts could be used evacuation. With the priority books being in phase boxes, it was very easy to simply place them on a cart, and shrink wrap the cart. On the other hand, we were very pleasantly surprised that our buildings had remained very cool for about 11 days. Finally, we departed after having packed our "priority" collections and headed for Alexandria Museum of Art. But, it had no shelves, therefore we placed Coca Cola delivery crates on the floor, and put the manuscript containers on top of them. Books, fortunately remained on the carts. Visual collections remained in print cases or in the case of paintings wrapped carefully in ethafoam and mover's blankets. During the unpacking, we noted any boxes that were damaged in the move, and took a photograph.

The first evacuation trip did reveal one physical need at our off-site storage facility that needed immediate attention. Unfortunately, none of our regular contractors had been given the okay to return to the city to work. However, through stroke of luck, we were able to share a contactor who was going into do something for a hospital. It underscores just how much our disaster plan, that we had worked diligently on, was rendered useless so quickly and the importance of creative solutions.

4. The second evacuation trip to New Orleans

The second evacuation trip occurred on September 15. At that time, our local fine arts mover had a pass from the Office of Emergency Management to go and come from New Orleans on his own. The city was stable, and a police escort was not necessary. However, controls into the city were still tight. We waited in line for one hour for our papers and that of our movers to be checked. By that time senior staff members had magnetic signs to go on the side of their cars for the trip in.

It made a tremendous difference and shortened the length of our wait. The purpose of the second trip was to remove a few additional items, and to double check the buildings.

5. Beginning to return home

Once given the okay to return to New Orleans, permission was given on a zip code basis. Senior staff members who could return did so immediately. Every supply imaginable was brought in with us. We spent a good amount of time with our HVAC people making sure that all systems were properly working. The initial days were spent in simply preparing the building to greet staff members when they would return. We immediately had to take other measures as well. We prepared security badges for all staff members.

This was necessary as addresses, telephone numbers, e-mails had changed. We asked that they give two contact people, both of whom had to know how they could be reached in the event of an emergency. One had to be outside of the greater New Orleans metropolitan region. Finally, on October 3, staff members who could return to work did return to work.

6. Preparing to re-open

The first assignment upon return was a thorough cleaning of the building. The top of every shelving unit was vacuumed. All items on shelves were removed, the items were checked for any sign of stress due to the hurricane or the period afterwards. Shelves were cleaned with alcohol. During this same period, we had environmental monitoring of the building conducted on several different occasions. On October 12, we reopened the museum portion of our institution to the public. One week later, we reopened the research center. There was much activity in the area, much work being done by construction companies, which is dangerous in itself. In fact, one construction company placed without our knowledge a very large trash bin directly behind our off site storage facility. Unfortunately, it caught fire. Because there was a security guard there, and staff, it was noticed immediately, and it only scorched a portion of the rear wall. However, had the building not been active, the fire would have go unnoticed and we would have had a major disaster.

Finally, when all was settled we had to repatriate the collections from Alexandria. It meant dispatching staff to Alexandria to inventory the material and prepare for shipment. Upon arrival in New Orleans, again we had to inspect everything to see if it had been damaged in the course of transit.

7. The impact of Katrina upon daily functioning in the post-Katrina world.

The first thing, even in exile, was to work with our financial institution to continue to pay all bills and obligations on schedule. We also realized that we no longer had a valid mailing list. We even learned that our e-mail mailing list had an exceptionally high number of changes. We learned that receiving supplies was a challenge. Because of the vast need, national vendors had a difficult time supplying book carts.

8. Considerations in revising the disaster plan

Among the immediate responses to revising the disaster plan was that in the event of a hurricane where we evacuate, the number one item requested by the staff was to evacuate was - our own collection vehicle. We routinely microfilm our accession records. What we learned when we tested our system of evacuating priority collections, was that we did not put a set of the acquisition records microfilm with the priority collections. There is now a set of microfilm of those records ready to be evacuated. Our emergency carts were updated to include items we had not considered before - hard hats, hammers. We had a variety of items to the preparation procedure, including but not limited to - cleaning out the refrigerator, and having chains and pad locks to the electronic gates as the magnets went out with electricity, leaving them vulnerable. A better storage system for priority books was devised. (example) It was actually based on the system used for sound recordings. (example) We have also added the self-carboning rescue form to the disaster carts. Additionally we have added a "disaster wheel" and an in-house publication dealing how to respond to disasters. Departments heads have been issued lab top computers.

One thing we learned is that in the course of a disaster you do not have time to consult a disaster plan. You simply have to be trained as to what to do, do it, and be creative in doing it.

Throughout the process, communication and access to accurate information - two things upon which the recovery efforts depended upon - were the most difficult to find.

The importance of a good disaster plan is critical, more so for the less fortunate. The Archdiocese of New Orleans has a cooperative agreement with the Diocese of Baton Rouge. The Baton Rouge archivist immediately became involved in their rescue effort. In that instance, the critical lesson learned is not the importance of the first 48 hours, but what do you do in the first 48 days after such a disaster. These are views of their activity 4 months after the storm.

Today, they are continuing to rescue documents in books. As of 3 weeks ago, they were working with bound documents stored on shelves, with the water, the books expanded. The archivist had to select one bound volume to sacrifice to be able to save the others. They were still using hammers and crowbars to bust open filing cabinets. Fortunately, they had had a very active microfilming project of all records.

This is a rough draft of the presentation notes of the speaker