Magazine article Information Management

Katrina Devastates Gulf Records: Hurricane Katrina Hit Records Hard. the Upside, However, Is That She May Have Convinced Those Still Relying on Vulnerable Paper Records to Enter the 21st Century

Magazine article Information Management

Katrina Devastates Gulf Records: Hurricane Katrina Hit Records Hard. the Upside, However, Is That She May Have Convinced Those Still Relying on Vulnerable Paper Records to Enter the 21st Century

Article excerpt

When Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast, she brought torrential rain, widespread flooding, and unbelievable damage. Towns were wiped off the map, families were separated, and lives were swept away. What Katrina did not batter and bruise, the floodwaters finished off. Many who survived the storm--what many are now calling the worst natural disaster in U.S. history--did so with little more than the shirts on their backs.

Now, those survivors face a different kind of disaster: Wind, floodwater, and mold has damaged, soaked, and ruined vital records in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Medical records, school records, law enforcement records, court records, and even driver's license records were also victims. Without them, Katrina survivors cannot prove where they lived, what they owned, or even who they are. For those who lived and worked in the Gulf Coast states before the hurricane, rebuilding their records may be an even greater challenge than rebuilding their homes, jobs, and cities.

Lost Identities

Hundreds of thousands of victims lost personal and financial records, including medical, dental, and tax records, birth certificates, and Social Security cards, as well as credit cards and driver's licenses. Without such basic, vital records proving a person's identity, it has been difficult, if not impossible, to identify those who died in the disaster.

Records that were filed electronically on tape or disc can be saved, most experts say, but those without electronic records will have to start over in most cases. Louisiana residents who fled without a critical form of identification their birth certificates--may not be able to replace them for a while. Louisiana's vital records office--which has stored all state birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, and divorce papers for the past 100 years--was based in New Orleans. The records are currently inaccessible, but were being stored in a safe, dry place, according to the executive director of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, which connects all the United States' vital records offices.

Compounding the problems, most employees of the New Orleans office were themselves victims of the hurricane. In the weeks after Katrina hit, media reports said the office was operating with only three or four people--5 percent of its staff.

Identity database firm ChoicePoint offers a service called VitalChek.com, which allows people to order birth certificates and other documents online from all 50 states. But displaced Louisiana natives cannot use VitalChek because the service relies on the state's vital records offices to produce the documents.

Local and federal agencies have relaxed identification standards for individuals in the affected areas. For example, officials say lack of identification is not a barrier for the Louisiana Department of Health's economic assistance office, which has been expediting applications for food stamps, child support, and other critical services. The office asks for only one form of identification from applicants and, if that is not available, it is not a barrier.

Similarly, Mississippi hurricane victims can get a replacement driver's license for $20 cash while they wait. The Mississippi Department of Public Safety driver services division usually requires two forms of identification, but it said a driver with no ID can provide his or her Social Security number to get a replacement. Louisiana drivers in Mississippi can go through a similar procedure, but they must wait for a Louisiana driver's license office to mail the license to a Mississippi office.

Without a driver's license, simply cashing a check can be difficult. The USA PATRIOT Act requires banks to verify an account holder's identity before he or she opens a new account usually with a driver's license. But the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a banking regulator, issued a statement after the storm asking for lenience: "Banks are encouraged to use other verification methods for individuals affected by the storm who do not have traditional forms of identification, such as driver's licenses. …

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