Quick action, luck save waterlogged archives

Conservators step in to help after rain soaks documents

Posted: Thursday, August 27, 2009

A disaster for the Alaska State Archives is in the process of being averted, in part due to a remarkable stroke of luck that helped archivists deal with a flood of water dousing historical records.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

While some documents have been damaged, everything has been salvaged and is usable, said Linda Thibodeau, director of the Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums.

"I feel much better, we have made incredible progress," she said.

None of the documents will be lost, Thibodeau said. Some will have water damage, but will be legible and usable.

The problems began when water poured in through the roof of the State Archives building in the early morning hours of Aug. 17, soaking or affecting 1,000 or more boxes of records documenting the state's history, some from long before statehood.

Archives staff salvaged sodden boxes of records and moved them to dry locations to begin the time-critical drying process.

"You only have 48 to 72 hours to dry things out before mold starts setting in, and we were reaching that point," Thibodeau said.

Contractor CBC Construction of Sitka worked to stop any more water from entering the building and owner Chris Balovich said he spent several thousand dollars on drying equipment, fans, dehumidifiers and vacuums.

Meanwhile, documents were hauled to the Juneau Arts and Culture Center, the State Library and the State Office Building's atrium - anywhere free space could be found - to begin drying.

CBC had been contracted by the state's Division of General Services to re-roof the Archives building, and had placed a temporary, inflatable cover on the building to shelter it from rain.

"We didn't expect a freak, 60-knot gust in August," Balovich said.

It was obvious that running fans, dehumidifiers and even hair dryers wasn't enough.

"We were doing triage," Thibodeau said. "By Wednesday the enormity of the damage was clear and it was clear we couldn't do everything immediately."

Balovich brought in a freezer van to hold the wet documents until they could be dried.

"That was the turning point," Thibodeau said. "What that does is stops the mold and mildew growing - everything goes into a frozen stasis."

Then, Alaska got a lucky break.

The Western Association for Art Conservation was in town for its annual convention, and volunteers from the convention provided emergency help to the state.

"The serendipity was unimaginable," Thibodeau said.

Thibodeau said there aren't any paper conservators working in Alaska, but right when they were needed there was a gathering of conservators next door.

"It was like having a heart attack at a cardiologists' convention," said Vern Jones, chief procurement officer for the Division of General Services.

The association advertised its convention as a chance to learn about "doing conservation in a challenging environment."

"There will be thought-provoking sessions on disaster recovery in extreme situations," the conference brochure read. The group also volunteered at the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church while in Juneau.

About 50 boxes a day can be processed.

The freezer van and additional skilled help bought time, Thibodeau said. The staff must unbind the documents, fluff the pages out so air can circulate, interleave them with dry paper, and use hair dryers if necessary.

The roof over the archives is now complete and the building dry with humidity at the appropriate 52 percent level. Additional roof work on an archives office area is awaiting good weather he said.

"Not one archive was lost," Balovich said.

Balovich said he wasn't to blame for the wet archives.

"It was a freak August storm, we took every measure we could beforehand," he said.

State contracting officer Dan Aicher with the Division of General Services said the state doesn't yet know whether there will be any additional claims against CBC Construction for problems in the $228,000 archives roofing contract.

While Balovich has provided most of the out-of-pocket expenses so far, there has been significant state staff time devoted to the restoration effort. The State Library has been closed since the leak.

"The responsibility is the contractor's," Aicher said, even though it was surprise bad weather that caused the inflatable roof to fail.

"Whether it should have been foreseen or not, the contract required them to take measures to protect the building," Jones said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or e-mail patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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