Lives and history adrift on a soggy paper trail
Paper is everywhere in New Orleans — floating in the water, trapped in tree branches, ground into curbside mud. Millions of pages are soaked in courthouse basements, businesses and homes. Among the items are records of families, land ownership and commercial transactions, along with all the paper that charts the minutiae of everyday life.
In the basement of the Civil District Courthouse on Poydras Street, three blocks from the Superdome, water has lapped over 20% of the 60,000 leather-bound books of the New Orleans Notarial Archives. The books contain the records of all property transfers in the city that have occurred in the modern era.
"We don't have deeds in New Orleans," said Stephen P. Bruno, custodian of the archives. "Whatever our records say, that's who owns the property."
Farther down Poydras Street, at the Amoco Building, the Notarial Archives maintains an equally large collection of older documents, some dating to the 1700s.
Many are handwritten, such as a power of attorney signed by the pirate Jean Lafitte giving his brother Pierre authority to demand reparations from Washington for damages suffered in the War of 1812.
"It's the single most perfect collection of these documents in North America," said historian Thomas Ingersoll of Ohio State University, who used them to prepare his thesis on 19th century slavery.
The city is preparing for a massive exodus of paper, trucking out valuable documents so they can be freeze-dried and cleaned by hand.
But for most of the paper blown through broken windows in the hurricane or flushed out into the city by the flood, there is little hope.
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