Rare historic documents lost to Katrina

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PASS CHRISTIAN, Mississippi As Hurricane Katrina approached, local historians were confident a vault filled with precious pre-Civil War pictures, maps and documents cataloguing the history of this Gulf Coast community would be safe.

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

All 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 August 29 splintered many communities and left others waterlogged.

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

Just a few miles west of Pass Christian, the Hancock County Historical Society in Bay St. Louis fared much better with very little water damage and a vault that held, protecting thousands of documents, including family diaries and thousands of local photographs.

Charles Harry Gray, the executive director, was prepared in case disaster struck. Over the years he had been making copies of all of the group's most treasured documents, including 30,000 pictures. Not one single photograph or record was lost.

They are the pieces of Bay St. Louis' 306-year history that made the town of 8,230 what it is today, he said. Many of the copies were on computer disks and hard drives, others were sent to the University of Southern Mississippi, two hours north in Hattiesburg.

"It is imperative that you have copies in other locations because you never know what's going to happen, what the next catastrophe is going to be, and there certainly will be one," Gray said.

There were no copies in Pass Christian. Rizzardi said the hope for the town's past lies with a local plumber, Billy Bourdin, who kept 3,400 vintage pictures on computer disks as a hobby.

The actual photographs and his eight piles of newspaper clippings are gone, Bourdin said, but the disks survived.

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