Bit by Bit, Federal Team Recoups Gulf's History

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National Park Service preservationists, escorted by the equivalent of the agency's SWAT team, spent the past two weeks rolling through checkpoints and wading into moldy and still-wet museums to preserve rapidly disintegrating artifacts that record some of the Gulf Coast's colorful history.

They returned this week to the Washington area and will begin sifting through condition reports on thousands of artifacts recovered after Hurricane Katrina. They saved flintlock muskets and Civil War pistols from rust. They rescued a Confederate colonel's diary and heirloom plant samples from mold. They helped save precious family photographs from the ever-growing trash piles in New Orleans neighborhoods.

It wasn't an easy mission, to work frantically amid human suffering to save things, rather than people, said Pam West, director of the Park Service's Museum Resource Center.

"There were times when we talked to people who lost everything, and we'd tell them we were sorry that we couldn't help them," West said. "But they would tell us: 'Oh, yes, you're doing something. You're saving our culture. You're saving our heritage.' "

The team of 10 curators -- preservationists and historians who are trained in outdoor survival skills and run drills by soaking items in swimming pools and then salvaging them -- split up between Mississippi and Louisiana, where they were escorted by the Park Service security force.

At the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi, the historians saved ceramics, glass and a 5,000-specimen historical plant exhibit that had been floating for days in rancid water, West said.

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