Flood-Damaged Government Documents Halt Northeast Transactions

By WILSON RING | October 18, 2011

It only took half an hour for the raging Mad River to flood much of Moretown during Tropical Storm Irene and fill the vault in the town clerk’s office with 51/2 feet of water, but it’s taking weeks to get the documents in the vault ready to use again.

In the interim, most real estate transactions have come to a halt in the village because those saturated papers, some centuries old, are needed to prove the property can be sold.

“You can’t do a deal, either refinance or purchase and sale, without a title search, and you can’t do a title search without the land records,” said Waitsfield real estate lawyer Dave Olenick, who has two deals on hold from Moretown.

Immediately after the flood, the documents were taken to be freeze dried and restored. They’re due back soon, said Town Clerk Cherilyn Lamson.

“We have hopes to be back in business next week,” said Lamson.

Moretown was one of a number of communities in Vermont and New York where municipal and county records were damaged and possibly destroyed by floodwaters that inundated the Northeast in late August and early September.

In New York, where flooding devastated areas in the eastern half of the state from the lower Hudson Valley to the Adirondacks, one archivist called the damage “massive.”

“This dwarfs anything we’ve done,” said Geof Huth, director of government record services for the New York State Archives in Albany.

Huth’s office advises local governments on how to manage their records and how to recover them when disaster strikes. About 100 local governments sustained flood damage to official records, he estimates.

While the real estate records have clear and immediate use, the historical documents have other value.

Vermont is one of three states where local records are required to be kept at the municipal level, said state archivist Gregory Sanford. In many cases, land records date back to the when the towns were laid out in the mid-1700s.

Municipalities are also required to keep vital records such as birth, death and marriages certificates, minutes of public meetings, tax and planning documents and in some cases school registers, said Trevor Lewis, a records analyst with the state archives.

They are required to be kept in vaults that are fireproof, but there is no requirement that they be waterproof.

“There are the core legal requirements, but there are also other records of historical interest and historical oddities that have ended up being deposited with the clerk,” said Sanford. If those documents are lost, “what you begin to lose is the evolution and the personality of a town. It almost becomes a form of institutional amnesia.”

Many Vermont communities are in the process of converting their records to electronic formats – in Moretown, the work had been scheduled to begin in the days after the flood – but still in many cases officials need to examine the paper real estate records to ensure property can be sold.

It’s unclear what would happen if those land records can’t be restored.

“We’d have to do something. You can’t tell people ‘I’m sorry, we can’t sell your house forever,”‘ said Olenick. “I think there would have to be some sort of statutory relief.”

In Wilmington, the disruption of the town’s records kept officials from doing business for almost a month. On the morning of the flood, Town Clerk Susan Haughwout got help from her assistant and other volunteers in getting most of their records to the second floor, above the flood level.

No critical records were lost, and now the office is operating out of a former pharmacy. “I feel very fortunate,” said Haughwout.

In New York, the state has had about a dozen archives experts in the field using freeze-drying techniques to keep documents from getting moldy. The key was to get to the damaged records quickly, he said.

“If it gets wet and isn’t taken care of soon, it can get moldy and it can basically turn to sludge,” Huth said.

But not all was in danger.

“We saw this coming,” Huth said. “Whenever we see these things coming, we tell them to prepare for this. Do simple things, move records out of harm’s way. There are people who actually followed that advice and protected their records, moved them to an upper floor or took them home.”

(Associated Press writer Chris Carola in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.)

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