Last Friday, a CitiStorage records storage warehouse in Brooklyn caught fire. The facility housed tens of thousands of cubic feet of records created by several New York City agencies, including the Administration for Children's Services, the Health and Hospitals Corporation, the Department of Environmental Protection, , and the Department of Correction; earlier reports that the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development also had records at the facility have turned out to be incorrect. In addition, it may have housed records created by courts that are part of New York State's Unified Court System; however, some or all of these records may have been stored at an adjacent CitiStorage facility unaffected by the fire. In addition, approximately 300 cubic feet of archival UJA Federation records were destroyed by the blaze; fortunately, the bulk of the federation's archival records had been taken out of the warehouse and transferred to the American Jewish Historical Society well before the fire began.
the exception of the UJA Federation records, it seems that most of the
records destroyed in or dispersed by the fire were ultimately slated for
destruction. However, some of them contain information that is
restricted under state or federal law -- and the ferocity of the fire,
firefighters' efforts to combat the blaze, and weather conditions
scattered large quantities of them all over the Brooklyn neighborhood of
Williamsburg. Records found on the streets and waterfront
of Williamsburg included "charred medical records, court transcripts,
lawyers’ letters, sonograms, bank checks" and a host of other documents
containing personal medical, financial, and legal data. Some were marked
and some contained Social Security Numbers. The City of New York has
dispatched contractors to retrieve and securely destroy as many of these
records as possible, but "scavengers and artists" and other area residents are also picking up the documents they encounter.
Earlier this week, the New York Times published an article
that, in an roundabout way, questioned why city agencies "would store
thousands of paper records in cardboard boxes stacked floor to ceiling"
and why medical records were housed in a commercial storage facility.
a records professional, I couldn't help but roll my eyes. We place
boxes of records on shelves not only to maximize space but also to
minimize the impact of fire; stacked boxes of records catch fire more
slowly than stacks of loose papers. We generally use cardboard boxes not
only because they are cheap and practical but also because they provide
records with a modest degree of protection from water used to combat
fire and because, unlike plastic, it won't melt.
as use of commercial storage facilities is concerned, I would much
rather have records stored in a clean, secure, climate-controlled, and
adequately fire-protected facility than in some government buildings I have
visited. (Of course, one might question whether the CitiStorage
warehouse was an appropriate choice: it's literally a stone's throw away from the East
River -- in an area that may have experienced some flooding as a result of Hurricane Sandy -- and close to an oil refinery. However, no storage facility is ideal, and cost and convenience may have made CitiStorage seem like a reasonable choice.)
Investigators are still trying to
figure out what caused the fire, which was actually the second
of two fires reported at the facility last Saturday morning, and why
the building's sprinkler system didn't douse it before it got out of
control. At the time of this writing, it seems unlikely that the fire was deliberately set.
I'm not helping to respond to this disaster, and at the risk of passing on misinformation I'm not going to say much about the response effort. However, I do know that records professionals from multiple government agencies are actively working to assess losses and determine how best to deal with damaged records and that more information will emerge as this effort progresses.