Cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina: Lost History

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Historians in Pass Christian, Miss., were confident a vault filled with precious pre-Civil War pictures, maps and documents cataloging the history of this Gulf Coast community would be safe as Hurricane Katrina approached.

Hopes were high after the storm passed. The former bank building that served as the Pass Christian Historical Society's headquarters washed away, but its vault still stood. Workers opened it and found wet, sopping papers – the ruined history of a seaside town. Most of the collection including town ledgers and old newspapers was lost.

"Apparently, the vault did not hold back water," said Lou Rizzardi, an alderman and historical society member in the town of 6,750. "So it penetrated. Things got damaged because of water."

Up and down the Mississippi Gulf Coast and into New Orleans, archivists and local historians are taking stock.

They're worried about the future, but wondering also: What do they have left of their past after Katrina's 145 mph winds and a massive storm surge on Aug. 29 splintered many communities and left others waterlogged.

Many are considering whether it is wise to keep such valuable documents in disaster-prone areas.

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