About the National Archives

Disaster Preparedness and Recovery

Plenary Session, National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators. Joint Annual Meeting with the Society of American Archivists and the Council of State Archivists

Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
August 5, 2006, Washington, DC

Thank you for inviting me here today to share some thoughts on disaster preparedness and recovery.

This is an area in which the National Archives has had some recent experience. As you may know, the lower levels of our historic building on the National Mall were flooded during the downpours of late June, and we closed the entire building to the staff and public for more than three weeks while we worked to repair the extensive damage and restore electrical power. I want to emphasize, however, that there was no water damage to any records at the National Archives Building.

During that same period, at the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Maryland, a water pipe broke, spilling up to four to five inches of water on the floor and causing some 15,000 boxes of records to get wet. Fortunately, in both cases, our dedicated staff was quick to act and we are well on the way to recovery.

Today, however, I want to talk to you about larger disasters—those that affect millions of individuals in every aspect of their lives.

When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept over the Gulf States of Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi last year, millions of Americans living in those areas were left without many of the things they had taken for granted.

They lost loved ones, homes, businesses, jobs. They faced life without police protection, medical care, public services, retail stores, automobiles, access to their money—the basic things we need to live from day to day.

As if that wasn’t enough, people also faced “identity loss.” Vital records—property deeds, birth certificates, and personal papers—as well as records that document their rights as Americans and entitlement to government benefits—had all been in the path of the hurricane. And many were missing or heavily damaged or inaccessible.

These kinds of records are crucial to the recovery and rebuilding process for governments, institutions, families, and individuals. As a result, many in the path of the hurricanes were hard-pressed to provide basic documentation of their identity in order to receive the government benefits that were being rushed to the region.

Also affected by the hurricanes were records of the routine operations of the Federal Government—the actions of regional offices of departments and agencies and Federal courts in those areas—as well as records of state and local governments.

The National Archives and Records Administration, working with some state and local archives, stepped in to help assess, recover, and preserve these irreplaceable, vital records.

These are some of the things we did:

  • At the Federal Register, editors stopped the presses to add an important Treasury Department ruling that allowed financial institutions to cash government assistance checks for hurricane victims without requiring identification, which in many cases had been lost. This action was important because the rule was not in effect until it was published in the Federal Register.
  • Some NARA staff members spent weeks after the hurricanes working with Federal agencies and our partners in state and local government to begin to identify and recover records.
  • NARA conservators held training sessions and workshops for various Federal and state officials and others on dealing with damaged or contaminated documents.
  • At FEMA’s request, NARA conservators assisted in rescuing the records from the offices of officials in Orleans Parish, Louisiana. Flood waters rose up to seven feet there. We supervised the transfer of these very wet records to freezer trucks, which were taken to a facility in New York State. Once they were dry, they were evaluated and returned to Orleans Parish. Recovery of information on water-damaged computer hard drives was done to the extent possible.
  • NARA authorized Federal agencies to destroy contaminated records that represented a risk to health, life, or property if they had a temporary disposition of 10 years or less and if the information in them had likely been captured, at least in part, in other sources.
  • The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis expedited hurricane-related requests from veterans and retired civil servants who needed documents from their personnel files so they could establish or reestablish their identities—thus qualifying them for government benefits.
  • A special section was created on our web site, Archives.gov, to deal with records recovery issues resulting from hurricane damage. The web site listed agency contacts and provided links to information on records recovery and preservation for Federal agencies and courts, state and local governments, cultural institutions, and the general public.
  • The National Archives worked closely with the appropriate Federal authorities to secure representation on teams of Federal officials that evaluate damaged buildings to determine the nature of records damage and what type of assistance from NARA will be needed.
  • Because we also have a professional responsibility to ensure the preservation of non-Federal historical records that tell the story of America, I took several actions in my capacity as chairman of NARA's National Historical Records and Publications Commission. For example, emergency grants of up to $25,000 from the commission were authorized for the state archives in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi for disaster assessment and response activities.

What lessons did we learn from our activities after the hurricanes?

First, we learned that much of our previous planning had focused on buildings. But the hurricanes made us think about a much wider scope of disaster planning. We are now considering ways to respond more effectively to multiple, concurrent emergencies that may cover larger geographic areas.

Second, we also learned that the National Response Plan, which governs how the Federal Government responds to natural disasters, is silent on records, although it mentions historical buildings and archaeological sites. We want to make recovery of records, both vital and historic records, a central part of this plan.

And we are doing more than that. We are seeking to institutionalize some of the things we did following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita along the Gulf Coast last year.

There is a vacuum here that we need to fill. And so we are seeking a role as “First Preserver.”

To begin, we have embedded the mission of “First Preserver” into the Strategic Plan that will guide this agency for the next 10 years, until 2017. The plan states, “We will be First Preservers, promoting preservation of government records during times of disaster.”

As “First Preserver,” we will support other government agencies and public institutions with advice about disaster preparedness for records.

During emergencies, we will provide counsel in reacting to situations that threaten records.

We will preserve the Federal Register publication system. It generates legal records essential to the continuity of America’s constitutional democracy, and we will ensure that it will publish in times of crisis, in the face of all hazards, for as long as is needed.

We seek to become a key partner in the Federal response community—the agencies that take in the lead in recovery after natural disasters under the National Response Plan. This team already includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of Personnel Management, the General Services Administration, and state and local emergency management agencies and officials.

We believe we need to be present in planning the Federal Government’s disaster response process as well as in evaluating damaged buildings to determine the nature of records damage so we can best determine the type of assistance we need to provide.

We will support government agencies and public institutions with advice about disaster preparedness for records before emergencies occur. When there are emergencies, we will react to situations that threaten records. Our expertise will be available when there is a need to assist in the determination of recovery methods and to assist in rapid contracting for response.

We are also progressing in our “partnership” with the Council of State Archivists for coordinated disaster planning and records recovery for state and local government records, and for historical records, in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

State-level emergency preparedness plans for records enhances communications and coordination for records with key agencies at the local, state, and Federal levels, including FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, and NARA, and with national cultural preservation organizations. The aim is to ensure that no necessary and vital government and historic documents are lost through lack of preparedness for quick response and recovery.

We are hoping that by the end of calendar year 2007 there will be 50 state archives that are better prepared to preserve their records.

Planning for something you hope will never occur is not, in the 21st century, a task that can be put off. Disaster preparedness is now imperative, and the National Archives will do its part—with your help—as steward of the records that document our rights as citizens, the actions of our government, and the national experience.