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.

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.

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."

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