Archives record center in Suitland braces for double whammy

Friday - 8/26/2011, 2:42pm EDT

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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By Emily Kopp
Reporter
Federal News Radio

The National Records and Archives Administration's Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Md., worries that strong winds and heavy rain this weekend could exacerbate the damage that the building sustained in Tuesday's earthquake.

Water leaks caused by Hurricane Irene could harm the 4 million cubic feet of documents that appear to have escaped the earthquake unharmed.

In that case, staff will try to salvage wet papers by putting them in freezer trucks, said Jay Bosanko, NARA's executive for agency services, in an interview with Federal News Radio. Those trucks already are on site.

"We're talking about a roof surface that covers 10 acres," said Bosanko, describing the warehouse structure. "An amazing quantity of water would have to be moved off of that roof."

The earthquake Tuesday and its aftershocks cracked masonry in the facility's internal walls and stairwells, caused a small water leak in one stack area and caused several rows of shelving to shift, crushing some boxes. He said some cinderblock also remains loose.

"There's a hazard to staff right there," said Bosanko. "We don't want them at risk from falling debris."

The earthquake also damaged stairwells designated as emergency exits.

While the facility is closed, a small team of workers are donning hardhats and using the buddy system to fulfill agencies' emergency requests.

"We've already had some come in," said Bosanko, adding that those requests are typically from law enforcement about ongoing homeland security matters, but could also pertain to passports or medical records.

"There's a whole host of reasons why we might need to provide ready access to these materials in an emergency situation," he said.

Bosanko added the small group of staff "is literally doing what they'd do every day. They're just doing it under challenging circumstances."

Bosanko said the first damage inspection took 14 hours. He has walked through the facility since then, noting new damage each time. The problems that have been found so far are repairable, he said.

"We believe next week we'll be in a position to begin rendering the building safe, begin debris cleanup and progressively bring staff elements back in the building so we can ramp up to our full capacity as soon as possible," Bosanko said.

The Washington National Records Center is one of the National Archives' largest warehouses, with the square footage of 10 football fields. Its holdings include court records, law enforcement documents and Congressional papers.

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