How NOT to Store a Town’s Records

Smithtown, New York, may have learned an expensive lesson. Genealogists, historians, title search companies, attorneys, and more will also encounter difficulties because of improper storage of important documents. Tax files, birth and death certificates and other documents waterlogged from last month’s record rainfall may cost Smithtown hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore, officials said.

An estimated 301 boxes and 85 ledger books from the town clerk’s, assessor’s and comptroller’s offices were damaged in the Aug. 13 storm that dumped more than 13 inches of rain on parts of Long Island, said Smithtown Town Attorney Matthew Jakubowski. Several inches of water flooded the basement areas where the documents were stored.

Town officials rushed to freeze-dry the records, the first step in stopping the damage. The town received a bill for about $42,000 for services that include “document pick-up transportation and vacuum freeze drying,” and an invoice for about $6,600 for fumigation services and the cost of return shipping, according to a Sept. 9 memo from Kostecki to the town clerk, assessor and comptroller.

You can read more in an article by Lauren R. Harrison in the Newsday web site at http://goo.gl/QbT6mB.

I wonder why towns and other archives continue to store important documents in basements and other locations where flooding is a serious problem.

My thanks to newsletter reader W David Samuelsen for telling me about this story.

10 Comments

David Paul Davenport September 22, 2014 at 1:02 pm

“I wonder why towns and other archives continue to store important documents in basements and other locations where flooding is a serious problem.” The simple answer is that the employees generally don’t consider these to be important documents.

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The town I live in has had flooding damage their records twice in the last 10 years or so, although once was due to a ruptured ceiling pipe. I agree that storing valuable material in flood prone areas reflects a lack of concern, but lack of concern is also exhibited by homeowners who store precious valuables in their basements while failing to installing flood mitigation devices such as water intrusion alarm systems, battery powered sump pumps, water powered sump pumps, putting furnaces / water heaters / appliances as far off the floor as possible, and re-engineering subsurface structures to resist storm waters and sewage backups – which can extremely expensive also. My attitude: a basement is an instant swimming pool. Just add water. If you really need more storage space, built it above ground.

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Of course storing records in basements is foolish, because of the possibility of ruptured pipes, but in regard to the rainfall, in fairness, I don’t think this is a case of storing records in a location which would ordinarily be considered a flood prone area. Meterologists have estimated that this 13 inches in a single day was a once-in-500-years event.

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    Why records are stored in basements? Because it’s always been done that way, and people just follow customary paths.

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    An entire month’s worth of rain for that area fell within a single four hour stretch, with about 10 inches of it concentrated in the two hours from 2am to 4am.

    The main danger to documents stored in even a high and dry basement as this one probably comes from the possibility of a fire on one of the upper floors of the building. It takes a tremendous amount of water to put out a fire, and all of the water firefighters pour onto the flames above will take the course of least resistance downstairs into the basement.

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Clare Turncliff Gunning September 23, 2014 at 7:25 am

I spent the first 25 years of my life in Smithtown, NY. It is not a flood prone area at all. Ever. It is a high income area, it’s just something they haven’t thought about spending money on other storage options. Now hopefully they will. Hope it’s not too late for the rest of their records.

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Why are they storing paper at all? Why not scan all the documents once finalized? They will be safer, easier to find (if a proper naming convention is used) and more space in the basements, file rooms etc.

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    I’m not certain state law would allow them to toss the paper records, even if they retained digital copies.

    In addition, the area where Smithtown is located has among the highest real property taxes in the entire United States (double or triple those levied on similar properties in other parts of the Northeast) and, apart from those taxes, the Towns and School Districts have very few sources of money to pay their bills. School budgets have been rising much faster than inflation, partly due to increased cost of many new services they are being forced by federal and state mandates to provide, plus changes to pension funding requirements triggered in part by the need to make up for losses the pension funds suffered in the recent financial meltdown. The burden of real property taxes falls most heavily on the many middle class residents whose income has not been keeping pace with inflation. Even residents who don’t own real property are affected, because the high taxes their landlords have to pay force the landlords to keep rents extremely high.

    Thus all the Towns have been hard put to maintain existing services without literally taxing residents out of their homes. Even their ability to borrow for emergencies has been impacted. When they are having trouble keeping the streets paved and the lights on, they aren’t likely to take on the cost of digitizing records.

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Perhaps all public records keepers should invest in plastic buckets with lids. Not a perfect solution but at least it should limit water damage. If old ledgers, etc. are just piled in boxes or on shelves, this would be a better storage solution I think.

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University of New Mexico Library report warned of leaks before flooding
One week before a torrential rainstorm damaged historical documents at one of the four University of New Mexico libraries this month, an internal report warned that the facility was in need of attention because of persistent leaks…On Aug. 1, an unusually violent storm dumped 2½ inches of rain on the campus, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to more than 30 buildings.

Hardest hit was Centennial Library, which was built underground. Between 50 and 60 shelves – 150 to 200 linear feet of historical government documents – suffered water damage. The materials were quickly freeze-dried and taken to a processing center in Fort Worth for thawing and drying.

The report states that Centennial and the William Jackson Parish Memorial Business and Economics libraries were in particular need of attention because of recurring leaks.

Centennial “has a chronic problem with leaking, primarily because it’s underground,” Richard Clement, the new dean of the College of University Libraries & Learning Sciences, said. “It’s a design problem. Maybe you should never build a library underground?”

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