The recent devastation to the northeast caused by Hurricane Sandy serves as a reminder to record holders that they cannot let their guard down when it comes to the protection of historical records.
More than seven years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated South Louisiana, the effects to the genealogical community are still noticeable. Not only were many historical records lost or damaged, access to records was altered, in some cases permanently.
Records held by individuals and businesses suffered the most. Families lost personal papers, photographs, book collections, genealogical records, and in one instance, records of one antebellum plantation. Funeral homes, cemeteries, and some churches also lost records. Only rarely did backup copies exist.
Fortunately, damage to governmental records was not as extensive or as devastating. Resources were readily available to governmental entities, such as parish courthouses, university libraries and archives, and state offices, to freeze dry and restore records that were flooded. In some cases, microfilm copies were also available.
Beyond the actual record loss, access to records was severely hindered in the weeks and months following the storms. Birth, death, and marriage records, not only for the city of New Orleans, but the entire state, were impacted the most. By law, Louisiana’s Vital Records Registry is housed in New Orleans. They hold what are considered “current” vital records – birth records less than 100 years old and death and marriage records less than 50 years old. Many people who were displaced needed replacement copies of their personal documents. Because of the disruption, copies of some records could not be obtained for as long as six months after the storm. Even today, obtaining copies of current vital records can be difficult. Fortunately, older vital records are housed at the Louisiana State Archives in Baton Rouge where they continue to be readily available.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans suffered the loss of some current church records, but in the months following Katrina, most of those records were reconstructed. Overwhelmed by the recovery efforts, however, the diocesan archives suspended, then finally cancelled, the publication of their sacramental record books. Unfortunately, the series of Catholic church records has ended with volume 19 through the year 1831.
Another notable change since Hurricane Katrina has been a major reorganization and consolidation of the numerous record holding entities in the city of New Orleans. Effective in 2009, the offices of the Civil Court, Notarial Archives, Register of Conveyances, and Recorder of Mortgages were consolidated into a newly created 41st Judicial District Court system.
If anything good came from the experience, it has been a serious emphasis on disaster planning. Numerous workshops and lectures have been held around the state and at nearly every archival group meeting since.
Judy Riffel is a professional genealogist in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She is an officer in a statewide genealogical group, Le Comité des Archives de la Louisiane, and edits their quarterly journal, Le Raconteur. She reported extensively on the impacts of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to the state’s historical records.
© Judy Riffel 2013