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Hurricane Katrina Vital Records & Facility Restoration Issues

By Pat Moore, CBCP FBCI


Past disaster history has shown people all over the world that they cannot wait until the disaster hits to determine what critical belongings or information they need to take with them when they evacuate an area or facility. A national catastrophe, such as Hurricane Katrina, is an example of how important ''individual and family' preparedness is. No one can depend on any government entity to always save and restore their lives and belongings. Every person, and every business should be pre-determining possible evacuation methods and routes, as well as what critical information they need to take with them or need to store offsite or protect long before any type of disaster occurs. In addition, they need to understand that whatever they have stored offsite, if it is in the same geographical area where the disaster occurs, those items stored offsite may be lost or unavailable as well.

Individuals and businesses also need to pre-determine what information they may have in their immediate possession will be necessary to save and take with them for post-disaster use. Emergency contact information, irreplaceable photos or memorabilia, or other vital records, e.g. prescriptions, medical records, family records and information, critical financial documents such as stock certificates, and an availability of emergency 'cash' etc., may well be as important as critical business records when a disaster happens. Most individuals within the area affected by Hurricane Katrina had done no such planning, did not have the resources or methods available to them, or were not in a situation where they could activate their plan, especially if they did not heed the earlier warnings to evacuate the area.

Where there is potential or possible salvage of items such as vital records, the information contained in this article should be of help in understanding what is taking place with these vital records and some procedures that may assist you in possible restoration. The second part of the article will address important facility restoration issues.

With major water damage, vital records can become a total loss very quickly. For example, chilled-water systems in facilities often contain glycol, which can adversely affect certain types of paper and magnetic media. Different types of documents, photographs and vellum items, as well as magnetic media, need immediate and extra-special care. In dealing with paper in moist, humid conditions, you have about 48 hours before damage-inducing mold and mildew grow so you can well see what kind of damage Hurricane Katrina has done to paper, bound volumes and magnetic media.

Peter Waters, retired Conservation Officer from the Library of Congress, states " Every effort should be made to reduce high temperatures and vent the areas as soon as the water has receded or been pumped out. Water-soaked materials must be kept as cool as possible by good air circulation until they can be stabilized. Obviously this has not been possible in most facilities affected by the hurricane.

As long as books are tightly shelved, mold will develop only on the outer edges of the bindings. No attempt should be made in these conditions to separate books and fan them open. Archival files, packed closely together on shelves in cardboard boxes, or in metal fire cabinets, are the least affected. As a general rule, damp books, located in warm and humid areas, without ventilation, will be subject to rapid mold growth. Archival files, which have not been disturbed, will not be attacked so quickly by mold. As they begin to dry after removal from the water however, both the bindings and the edges of books, will be quickly attacked by mold, especially when in warn, unventilated areas.

A different problem exists for books printed on coated stock, since, if allowed to dry in this condition, the leaves will permanently fuse together. Coated papers must not be permitted to begin drying until each volume can be dealt with under carefully controlled conditions."

Freezing and then storing documents can buy you time to finalize arrangements for proper recovery procedures. Although freezing itself is not a drying method - and does not kill mold - it definitely controls its growth if done properly. How many individuals and companies had a contingency plan for protecting, retrieving and restoring critical records and 'work in progress' from major water damage, including a relationship with a document and vital records restoration and recovery resource who have the necessary equipment such as freeze-drying chambers and freezer truck available to help them?

Certain procedures such as washing away accumulated mud, sewage, and dirt must also be completed, prior to freezing, to avoid additional damage. When removing wet documents from file cabinets or shelving that is still in place and available to you, do not attempt to pull them apart while wet. Remove all documents in blocks, if possible, so you do not increase deterioration. Leave a space about the size of your fist in the packing box for proper air circulation.

Once the documents are frozen and/or in cold storage, the next step is choosing the proper drying method. Freeze-drying is the most effective way to restore water-soaked documents. This procedure involves freezing the documents immediately (if possible) to prevent any further damage to the paper, and then placing the documents in a freeze-drying chamber where they will undergo a process known as sublimation.

Sublimation changes the frozen water in the documents to a vapor, bypassing the liquid state. The frozen water in the water-damaged documents then passes from the frozen state to a gas or vapor without returning to the liquid phase. Additional sterilization and use of a fungicidal buffer can help documents resist future mold growth.

If the documents are not soaking wet, air drying through dehumidification can be effective as well. In dehumidification, you introduce dry air, (by using either desiccant or refrigeration dehumidification equipment), into the moist environment where the documents are located and the water vapor is absorbed into the dry air.

It is important to point out that, depending upon the degree of water damage and volume of documents, both processes can require substantial time (generally a minimum of 7 - 10 days, but obviously in the case of Hurricane Katrina - much, much longer. Typically, freeze-drying costs are priced per cubic foot of records, and you will only want to freeze dry those items that are of importance to you, your family or your business.

The successful recovery of vital records stored on magnetic media will require many of the same considerations as hard copy documents. These emergency mitigation procedures of immediate and proper damage assessment, climate control, and proper handling and cleaning are extremely important due to the sensitivity of magnetic media. Water can erode through the substrate, causing loss of magnetic material and destroying data in the process. To be effective, proper recovery procedures, such as restoring a relative humidity below 50° F and utilizing proper drying and cleaning protocols must be employed within 72 - 96 hours of damage. These restoring timeframes are undeniably impossible in cases such as Hurricane Katrina where even access to the affected area is restricted for a minimum of seven days or longer.

The cleaning and drying methods will also depend on the type or degree of damage incurred. Water damaged floppy diskettes, for example, are normally opened and dried, using isopropyl alcohol, and then inserted into empty jackets and copied onto new media. Depending on the situation, magnetic tapes can either be freeze-dried or machine-dried. While cartridge tapes must be freeze-dried, open-reel tapes can be dried on tape cleaning machines. Tape drives, with recovery software, can then be used to recover and copy the information onto new media, however tapes must be dry and clean before any attempt is made to copy the data.

Improper handling of wet microfilm, such as allowing it to dry on its spool can result in data loss as well. In most cases it is best to leave the microfilm in water until it can be properly packed and sent to the appropriate recovery location.

Flood waters containing hazardous materials such as sewage, which can contain bacteria such as typhoid and cholera, are rampant throughout the Gulf Coast and therefore the proper health and safety procedures must be performed during retrieval and recovery of your vital records. Where previously made plans allowed for protection and removal of vital records in the event of a disaster, there is some hope that these documents and records could be salvaged, but unfortunately - where there was no planning for protection, retrieval and recovery with a specialized restoration resource, most will be lost in Hurricane Katrina.

The very recent horrific flooding situations throughout the Gulf Coast exemplify how disastrous extreme water damage can be. Along with the tragic loss of life, came almost irreparable physical property damage. Residents and businesses are still (at this writing) denied access to their homes and facilities which house their lives ,core business operations, vital records, electronic systems, critical work in progress, and production capabilities.

Until the water is pumped out and/or recedes, a proper and thorough site/damage assessment cannot be performed. This assessment is necessary; not only to facilitate recovery of bodies, but also to determine the extent of the damage, potential recovery time frames and costs, but also to ensure the safe and healthful entry requirements for personnel entering into this damaged environment.

Water and silt, associated with floods, are typically carrying contaminants such as bacteria including e-coli and cholera, heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs and hydrocarbons. In some cases, metals, including lead, chrome, cadmium, barium and mercury, along with maintenance chemicals, oils from mechanical rooms, waste oil storage or fuel oil tanks, paints, solvents, and house-keeping chemicals may also be present. When these and other unknown chemicals are found, specific procedures such as taking a complete physical inventory of each container found can be necessary. Product segregation according to Department of Transportation (DOT) Hazard Class specifications should be performed, when necessary, by certified, trained, hazardous material technicians. The water and silt must be tested and analyzed so that the proper health and cleaning protocols can be employed.

The affect of the water and silt upon the facility and its contents can be extremely detrimental. Mr. Ian R. Chin, SE, AIA an external consultant to BOMA (Building Owners and Managers Association), states that "Many buildings affected by water infiltration can be exposed to loading conditions that they have never seen before, and possibly were not designed to withstand. After the water is pumped out, all structural walls, beams, and columns should be investigated to determine if water-related forces have adversely affected the structural capacity and serviceability of building elements. When existing conditions have been evaluated, the structural engineer should design repairs to provide immediate intervention for stabilization as needed, and to provide long-term measures to address distress conditions. Structural intervention must be coordinated with measures to address architectural, mechanical, electrical and environmental concerns in areas affected by water."

For example, the water's ionic content, acidity, suspended solids and organic content should always be analyzed. Inorganic salts from building materials and atmospheric particulate matter can be deposited on exposed circuit boards. It is also important not to let the sediments in water settle on the equipment and then dry. When addressing water damage in a facility and upon contents of that facility(s) you need to review all the water variables that could exist such as total alkalinity (pH), total dissolved solids (TDS), suspended material, dissolved gases, pathogens, organic material, microorganisms, electrolytes, oil and chemicals.

For example, this is especially critical in pharmaceutical cleanrooms where organic material is being combined to make drugs. Total alkalinity (pH) of the water needs to be monitored because it changes from a low pH (base) to a high pH (acid) as the water content decreases. Neither condition is desirable in the presence of sophisticated electronic equipment. Also, pH levels affect conductivity, as does the decay of organic materials."

In most cases, de-energizing electronic equipment before exposure to water allows for successful restoration of equipment In a wet environment, electricity can be a greater threat to electronic equipment than water. Electronics, as well as finished products, should always be carefully examined and, if necessary, tested by experienced technicians to make sure they still meet the manufacturer's original operating and performance specifications, as well as general cosmetic appearance. If this equipment remains in a moist, humid environment, severe corrosion can occur within 48 - 72 hours so you can easily imagine the damage from Hurricane Katrina. Ideally, you would be able to clean all of the equipment at the same time, and remove the contaminants, but factors such as the volume of equipment, decisions on restoration Vs replacement, insurance coverage issues, re-certification requirements and even gaining access to the equipment itself, can delay the complete cleaning process. Emergency restoration procedures, such as removal of standing water, facility dehumidification, and corrosion control are crucial loss recovery factors in reducing damage to critical components of the facility.

It is possible to remove hundreds of gallons of water from thousands of square feet in a facility over a 24 hour period by dehumidifying moist air through the use of high efficiency refrigeration or desiccation techniques. It has been said by many restoration specialists that dehumidification equipment that is used in conjunction with overhead fire sprinklers and fire detection sensors can provide the maximum protection for an expensive telephone switch or electronic data processing environment.

In addition, where you have had standing water or moist, humid conditions in a facility for more than 24 - 48 hours, you must be concerned about the development and growth of mold and mildew spores, already very obvious from Hurricane Katrina. This affects not only the structure, HVAC systems and critical contents such as documents and magnetic media, but can produce sick building syndrome as well, where the building is even left standing. Highly elevated humidity and temperature levels, for example, over 50% relative humidity and 75° F, in moist humid conditions can produce an environment conducive to mold and mildew growth, extremely obvious along the Gulf Coast.

Mold growth will typically be visual around baseboards, on ceiling tiles, light fixtures, supply registers, upholstery and porous surfaces such as paper documents. Two types of mold growth are active growth and dormant growth. A wipe sample will provide you with evidence of CFU's (colony forming units). Where you are not sure within a building that is even left standing from Katrina, samples, taken from different areas and contents in the facility, should be sent to a qualified laboratory, specializing in health and environmental issues. Their analysis will tell you the type and volume of mold spores growing. Active growth can be killed by using special EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) recognized biocides.

Dormant spores are more difficult to deal with because when the humidity and temperature levels in the facility return to normal ranges, e.g. 50% relative humidity and 75 F ambient temperature, active growth will become dormant. In moist, humid conditions, when the temperature and humidity levels rise again, the dormant spores can again become active. There are varied approaches of source removal for dormant spores.

Again, in facilities even left standing or considered possibly tenable in the future, a proper and thorough damage assessment, performed by a certified industrial hygienist and decontamination of the HVAC Systems is critical in ensuring that the building will be returned to the proper criteria of clean for re-occupancy. In many cases, rather than replacing the ductwork, the application of the proper EPA recognized biocide through various fogging and cleaning applications can be performed. In compliance with local and state regulations, follow up clearance sampling is necessary as the final step in returning the facility to a safe and healthful condition.

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