The West Bank Beacon – July 2011
Hurricane season is upon us. Area residents and businesses are making plans and acquiring hurricane supplies. Government agencies also are preparing to protect the public infrastructure from wind and water.
Protection of the public record—a crucial component of infrastructure—from natural disaster is of utmost importance. Without access to information recorded in the clerk of court’s office, there can be no commerce. Without access to the real estate records of the clerk of court’s mortgage and conveyance department, financial activities and property transactions in the community come to a halt. Without access to the court record, those accused of criminal activities cannot seek or receive justice, and parties to civil litigation cannot resolve their conflicts. A complete and accurate public record is an important facet of a civil society’s infrastructure.
Since the parish was founded in 1825, the clerk’s office has relied on the submission of paper documents for recording deeds, mortgages, liens, contracts, corporation filings, etc. More than 3 million documents containing an estimated 25 million pages have been filed in the mortgage and conveyance records, with tens of millions more filed in the civil and criminal departments. In recent years, the clerk began receiving documents electronically, further decreasing the volume of paper handled by workers and increasing the security of the public record. The end of this maddening paper chase began in 1992 when Jon Gegenheimer was the first clerk of court in Louisiana to establish digital imaging of land records, increasing the ease with which employees and courthouse patrons view and copy recorded instruments.
While convenience and efficiency have been his primary goals, among Gegenheimer’s concerns prompting the move to computerization were the paper records’ vulnerability to malicious acts and destruction by natural disaster or fire. “Electronic records are impervious to fire, wind, water, theft, vandalism, and illicit manipulation,” he explained.
In Plaquemines Parish in 2002, the clerk of court lost many records when a destructive fire set by an arsonist leveled the parish courthouse in Point a la Hache. In Orleans Parish, many records were destroyed by the flooding of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There, the clerk had to engage in costly methods to save its records. Likewise, the clerk of court in St. Tammany Parish had to engage in heroic and costly efforts to preserve court records when a tornado severely damaged several court offices more than a decade ago.
For more than a decade, the Jefferson Parish clerk of court has strategically pursued the protection of vulnerable paper documents to ensure the safety of the public record with in-house imaging of the paper his clerks receive and by out-sourcing the imaging of older records. The clerk’s computer servers now house more than 45 million images. All images are backed up regularly on magnetic tapes stored in facilities away from the clerk’s primary information technology lab in Gretna. A duplicate digital copy of all images and databases is stored in the Louisiana State Archives in Baton Rouge and all images are supported by a microfilm back up copy stored in Gretna and in the state archives. “Redundancy is essential to preserving the public record,” said Gegenheimer.
While there still is work to do and more older records yet to be imaged, Gegenheimer is confident that the office can function effectively in the face of challenges posed by natural disaster. The mortgage and conveyance office is nearing completion of a project to image all of its notarial acts. Documents back to 1939 are preserved and protected with multiple copies of the electronic and micro-photographic formats and, by the end of 2011, the clerk expects to have the remaining acts dating to 1825, the year of the parish’s inception, completed.
JeffNet, the clerk’s remote access system, was available to subscribers throughout Hurricane Katrina’s landfall and its aftermath. Those in the legal community were able to access Jefferson Parish’s public record from wherever in the country they had relocated. Commerce in the New Orleans area was interrupted, not by the inability to access the public record; but by the dislocation of area residents. The Jefferson Parish clerk’s Continuity of Operations Plan includes establishing an office in another part of Louisiana with laptop computers and portable servers should evacuation become necessary.
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