To future genealogists, the record loss wrought by Hurricane Katrina will be a brick wall equal to thousands of courthouse fires. The harm to Gulf Coast historic structures is just as profound. “We all know Katrina is one of the greatest human tragedies in the nation’s history—but it also could be the greatest cultural catastrophe America has ever experienced,” says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation <www.nationaltrust.org>.
In New Orleans alone, a local commission determined 115 buildings in seven historic districts are seriously damaged and 56 more are compromised. Elsewhere in the Gulf, buildings such as Beauvoir <www. beauvoir.org>, the Biloxi, Miss., home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, were devastated.
The New Orleans Public Library’s (NOPL) <nutrias.org/welcome.html> main branch fared relatively well considering its position directly in the storm’s path: Except for the Technology Center, water damage was minor. But eight of the system’s 12 branches must be gutted or rebuilt, pushing the library’s preliminary recovery estimate to $17.5 million. NOPL’s Web site came back online in October with most of its content, plus photos of damage and weekly recovery updates.
At press time, NOPL director Bill Johnson reported, “We plan on offering limited service at the main library and one branch in the next two months.” That’ll happen with the 19 staff members left after the virtual disappearance of New Orleans’ revenue base led Mayor Ray Nagin to lay off 3,000 city employees Oct. 5.
The charge to prevent a cultural catastrophe is occurring on several fronts. Moe’s group has joined the World Monuments Fund (WMF) <www.wmf.org> to advocate for what a press release called “restoration and sensitive reconstruction measures” of hurricane-damaged landmarks — and prevent a rush to demolition. WMF also added the Gulf Coast and New Orleans to its list of the world’s most endangered sites.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <archives.gov> is offering records conservation assistance, emergency grants, help for states in securing other funds and expedited copies of records for former government employees (see <archives.gov/st-louis/katrina.rrtml>). National archivist Allen Weinstein pledged additional grants from the fiscal year 2006 budget, saying, “The loss of our collective memory of this region—identity loss, in other words—is at stake.”
From the February 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.