Frankfort, KY – When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005 it destroyed lives, homes and businesses. But flooding from the collapse of more than 50% of the city's levees also destroyed hundreds of thousands of public documents.
"They lost tons, and tons and tons of records," said Jerry Carlton of the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives. "Actually down to birth and death records, and all those types of things. And, from that disaster has come a nationwide thing on trying to actually do something about the protection of vital records."
Motivated by Kentucky's long history of courthouse fires, Carlton says Kentucky is ahead in the movement to protect vital records. He told lawmakers in Frankfort, since gaining statehood in 1792, the commonwealth has witnessed 107 courthouse disasters.
"Most of them fires," said Carlton. "But there's tornados. There's floods. The flooding for instance, in 1997 - Harrison County, Pendleton County."
The repeated disasters prompted the 1984 General Assembly to create the Local Records Program at the Department for Libraries and Archives. Its charge? To routinely copy most local records onto microfilm and store the data in secure vaults.
"Most of it's from the county clerks, but also from cities, schools, other local agencies of their permanent records, like minutes, ordinances, those types of things," said Carlton. "So that's included in the 52,000 rolls of film that we have in our vaults."
Carlton says funding for the program comes from a $2 legal processing fee collected by county clerks. Since its creation, the program has awarded $15 million in grants. They fund security microfilming, digital imaging, automated indexing and preservation and conservation efforts. But the funding is on the decline. In 1985, lawmakers appropriated $690,000 for preservation. This fiscal year, it fell to $305,000.
"Our decision-making is hampering local counties' ability to upgrade, update and provide the services these grants are for," said Louisville Rep. Reginald Meeks.
Meeks and others members of the Local Government committee were also alarmed to hear some local officials are wary of sprinkler systems protecting vital records. Some, fearing damage from accidental discharges, allegedly have gone so far as to turn off the systems. But George Mann of Building Codes Enforcement says the fears are unfounded. Mann says the failure rate of defective sprinklers is one in 16-million.
"Sprinkler systems don't function the way you see on TV or in the movies," said Mann. "You will get two or three heads to discharge to extinguish a fire, not the entire building."
The protection of public records from fire and flooding gained new urgency in May, when fire heavily damaged the 154-year old county courthouse in Madison, Indiana. Jerry Carlton says the concerns are justified, because it's a job that has no end.
"Records are produced every day," said Carlton. "I see the term paperless.' It might come some day. But it's not going to get here for a long, long time."
And that's why, with the 2010 legislative session fast approaching, Carlton and others are urging Kentucky lawmakers to stay focused on the vital importance of the state's document preservation program, and its need for adequate funding.