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Tropical Storm Irene: Ruined state records get the freezer treatment

Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, moves boxes out of her office at the Waterbury State Office Complex after Tropical Storm Irene. Photo by JohnLazenby

Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, moves boxes out of her office at the Waterbury State Office Complex after Tropical Storm Irene. Photo by John Lazenby

Tropical Storm Irene left a long, wet paper trail, and it leads to a freezer warehouse where thousands of the state’s paper copy public records are frozen and waiting to be cleaned.

During the storm, about 500 boxes containing the Department of Environmental Conservation’s paper records were soaked when the muddy floodwaters filled the files at the Waterbury State Office Complex.

These documents, smeared with flood detritus and dirt, were left soaked for several days before they began to mold. As the mold continued to cause irreparable damage to the documents, the department froze them.

“If you freeze the records, what you’re doing is buying yourself time,” said Scott Reilly, an archivist for Vermont State Archives and Records Administration.

Freezing the records stabilizes their current condition and prevents further deterioration and molding. Further steps, such as freeze-drying and freeze vacuuming, removes the moisture from the documents without causing more damaged.

All state agencies and departments are responsible to maintain and preserve public records for a given period of time assigned by the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration, known as the general retention schedule, Reilly said.

The Agency of Natural Resources was located in the Waterbury State Office Complex when the tropical storm flooded the office complex, parts of which are scheduled for demolition, including the offices for the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Nancy Manley, environmental program manager and records officer at the department, oversaw the reprocessing of the documents that were damaged when the offices were flooded.

She said approximately 500 boxes of records were damaged when the floodwaters reached the ceilings of the offices. About two days after the flood, the salvageable boxes were put into freezer trucks and kept frozen until the department found a vendor to clean them.

Wet, silt-covered records in a filing cabinet waiting to be frozen after Tropical Storm Irene flooded the Agency of Natural Resources' office in the Waterbury State Office Complex in August 2011. Photo courtesy of the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration.

Wet, silt-covered records in a filing cabinet waiting to be frozen after Tropical Storm Irene flooded the Agency of Natural Resources' office in the Waterbury State Office Complex in August 2011. Photo courtesy of the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration.

The cost for restoring the documents was about $1,000 per box; in all, it cost $500,000 to get the digital copies of the damaged records back to the department, Manley said. She said the Federal Emergency Management Agency footed most of the bill.

The department contracted Document Reprocessors, a New York-based business specializing in document restoration, to do the cleanup. Currently, the company is scanning the cleaned documents and sending them to the department. The paper copies will be destroyed because they are considered hazardous material.

Vendors that treat the records offer a spectrum of services, ranging from transportation, logistics, freezing, freeze drying, cleaning, storage, and other services.

Even though many of the Department of Environmental Conservation’s important documents were restored, there is still more work ahead to prevent a similar situation in the future, Manley said.

This means moving ahead the state’s plan to digitize all their records in two years, a plan that was hastened by Irene, Manley said.

“That was a hard but important lesson,” she said. “We had started it, but we have now accelerated the effort.”

Manley said the Agency of Natural Resources’ roughly 800 boxes of records that were removed from the complex are currently stored at a warehouse in Barre. It will cost the agency less than 5 cents per page to digitize the records because they will do it themselves.

The Waterbury town offices narrowly escaped damage to important records, said Town Clerk Carla Lawrence.

The basement filled up with water and ruptured the fuel tank, which filled the main floor two to four inches deep with fuel-saturated floodwater. However, the town’s land and other vital records were stored on a shelf four inches off the ground on the main floor, protecting them from damage.

Lawrence said all of the town’s land records are copied on microfilm, a film reel often used as longterm preservation strategy for important records.

The town office in Moretown was not so fortunate.

The Moretown town office was flooded and all of its records were soaked. However, nearly all the documents have been recovered and digitized, according Town Clerk Cherilyn Brown.

Brown said the restoration fees have exceeded $100,000, which is an amount still being processed. She said insurance provided by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns covered the cost of the damage.


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John Herrick

About John

John Herrick joined VTDigger in June 2013 as an intern working on the searchable campaign finance database and is now VTDigger's energy and environment reporter. He graduated from the University of Vermont with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a minor in Spanish. He wrote for the Vermont Cynic, university’s student newspaper, before interning and later freelancing for the Burlington Free Press.

Email: [email protected]

Follow John on Twitter @herrickjohnny

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