Flood Disaster Prompts Digitization Effort for 1,700 Boxes of Damaged Documents

Schoharie Creek in September 2011 following Hurricane Irene.

Schoharie Creek in September 2011 following Hurricane Irene. Hans Pennink / AP Photo

 

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In its recovery from Hurricane Irene, an Upstate New York county also improved access to records.

No one expected floodwaters to overrun Schoharie, New York, when Hurricane Irene’s floodwaters inundated the region in August 2011. The small town, the seat of Schoharie County, is about 40 miles west of Albany and sits in a valley, leaving it vulnerable to torrential rainfall.

Water from Schoharie Creek, rising 6 to 8 feet high, entered the Schoharie County offices, filling the building’s basement and reaching the first floor. Beyond the extensive damage across the area from Irene’s flooding, the county administration also had to deal with an archivist’s nightmare: 1,700 boxes of court documents, some dating back to 1795, were damaged, too.

Following the storm, the county quickly had the waterlogged records freeze-dried to prevent molding or additional damage and cleaned of dirt to prepare them for digitization.

“Even though we had records here damaged in the flooding, we had them dried out and digitized to make them workable again,” said Geoffrey Huth, the New York State Unified Court System’s chief records officer. “Once accomplished, the county and court system made the records easier to protect and easier to view again.”

Before documents could be digitized, court imaging standards had to be established.

Schoharie County chose the PDF/A format preferred by New York state and federal courts because it can easily be converted to PDF and made searchable with optical character recognition.

Surrogate Court records like wills and estate plans are mostly permanent because of their historical value—people visiting from all over to view them—and the county opted to keep them as volumes, though digital ones.

Documents are only captured in black and white. Color formatting didn’t provide additional or necessary information and would’ve required the compression of larger file sizes, leading to quality loss, Huth said.

For its digitization efforts, the county has been working with eBizDocs, which is using a Kodak Alaris document scanner and software disaster recovery solution.

“Whenever we go to a client site, we advise them to start electronic when they can,” Christopher Ginart, eBizDocs’ director of operations told Route Fifty in an interview. “We try not to stress the doom and gloom to customers, but disaster preparation is important because of that ability to backup data you only have one copy of.”

The Albany, New York-based electronic content management company chose Kodak i4200 Scanners because, Ginart said, they sacrifice speed for gentler document capture—some of the records on thin, onionskin paper. i4200 Scanners have a speed of 100 pages per minute, more than capable of handling time-sensitive projects like the one in Schoharie County.

Going through the boxes, workers could see which ones fell above and below the flood stage with the ones below taking more time to scan. Between October 2013 and February 2015, eBizDocs undertook its original project of scanning nearly 1,500 boxes’ worth of conventionally sized documents.

About three weeks ago, the company started on Surrogate Court records with plans to finish within the next six weeks.

While the county administration was able to use some Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster recovery funding, it was’t enough to cover long-term document freezer storage, which the county is paying for. At one point, three tractor-trailers hauled the frozen records to Texas.

The county office building also had to be renovated, but today a great deal of storage space has been freed up for meetings and events.

Schoharie County records are now pulled up on terminals with digital copies stored in three locations for authorized easy, online access and making them virtually impossible to destroy.

“The goal we have for our operations is to become as digital as possible as fast as we can,” Huth said. “We want stuff coming in digitally rather than having to scan it.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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