Miss. Coastal Residents Struggle to Find Deeds, Records

May 26, 2006

Robert Genin embarked on a paper chase in Bay St. Louis, Miss. soon after Hurricane Katrina swamped the house he and his wife, Mary, bought here 35 years ago.

The Aug. 29 storm washed away all his belongings, including financial documents he stashed in his attic. That sent him on a time-consuming search for a raft of records he needed to file insurance claims and tax returns and to apply for a government grant and loan.

For tens of thousands of Gulf Coast homeowners, rebuilding can’t start without a few crucial pieces of paper. Nearly every form of post-Katrina aid requires copies of records such as deeds, insurance policies, mortgages, federal tax liens and military discharges.

“It just takes forever to accomplish any of this stuff,” Genin said.
Before storm victims could seek help, officials in some of the hardest-hit parts of Louisiana and Mississippi had to salvage millions of records that Katrina soaked when it flooded courthouses and offices.

In New Orleans, a sewer backup in a courthouse basement drenched several million pages of real estate records dating back to the early 18th century. Stephen Bruno, custodian of the New Orleans Notorial Archives, said the smelly cleanup started less than a week after the storm.

Documents were stored in refrigerated trailers for several weeks, then sent to Chicago to be freeze-dried and cleaned before they were returned to New Orleans. The archives have since relocated to the city’s convention center, where they will be scanned into an electronic database.

“We didn’t lose a scrap of paper,” Bruno said.

Katrina also flooded a courthouse in Bay St. Louis, a small coastal city in storm-devastated Hancock County, Miss., saturating more than 3 million land records dating back to 1860.

Green and black mold already was growing on the documents when Hancock County Chancery Clerk Timothy Kellar surveyed the damage. Kellar’s office brought in a contractor, LMI Technologies, to dry and digitally scan records at the courthouse.

It took workers four days to salvage 900,000 pages, the last 31 years of deeds, for homeowners who needed them to file insurance claims or buy and sell property.

“The clock was ticking,” said LMI president Richard Greenlee. “Every day they’re sitting in 100-degree weather, the paper documents are deteriorating.”

One of the first visitors to Kellar’s office was a woman who watched her parents drown in the storm. She came looking for a copy of their will. “That’s the one that really touched me,” Kellar said.

Searching for the proper paperwork can be frustrating. In the race to salvage records quickly, some pages went missing or were scanned upside down, said Ann Byrne, a title abstractor. Byrne herself said she spends hours each day running title searches at the county’s makeshift offices in mobile homes.

“We’re trying to help everybody as fast as we can, but it’s difficult,” she said. “We’re all overwhelmed.”

In Mississippi alone, more than 86,000 homeowners, renters and business owners have applied for loans from the Small Business Administration. The SBA already has approved more than $2 billion worth of loans in the state.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi Development Authority has received about 13,400 applications for federally funded homeowners’ grants of up to $150,000, money designed to help those whose homes flooded despite being outside what was then the federally designated flood zone.

In a high school gymnasium in Bay St. Louis, caseworkers are interviewing grant applicants and processing their paperwork. One recent morning, Genin showed up for his appointment with several manilla folders and a yellow legal pad, his “cheat sheet,” tucked under his arm.

He rummaged through the folders as his caseworker ticked off the necessary documents: Deed? Check. Insurance policies? Check. “Proof of loss” statement from his insurer? Check.
Finding the documents he needed was easier for the retired lawyer, who spent 35 years in courtrooms.

“I knew where to go,” said Genin, 64. “Most people don’t know how to ask the right questions.”

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