Hurricanes and confidential document protection

Hurricanes and confidential document protection

Hightstown To Begin Restoring Salvageable Borough Records

Nine months after devastating Hurricane Irene hit Hightstown, poured several feet of water inside Borough Hall and sent papers floating down the creek to Cranbury, a company has been called in to begin the process of restoring the borough’s records.

The state-approved company, Belfor USA, will come in starting June 11 and begin removing records, restoring whatever is possible and microfilming the documents, according to Borough Clerk Debra Sopronyi. The process is anticipated to take anywhere from six months to a year.

“To determine what actually still exists and what [doesn’t] is going to be a long process,” Sopronyi said.

With the police department being the lowest elevation of the building, they lost the most in the storm. Papers on upper shelves were wet, and many destroyed. Given the sensitivity of the records, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office has been advised of the destruction and is aware of the restoration process, Sopronyi said.

An officer is required to be stationed at the police department during the removal of records, and each document will need to be logged by police as it is removed from the building. The state also requires the court administrator to log all records removed from the court archive as it is removed.

The court records were in a vault that was shut and locked inside Borough Hall, but water still managed to wet documents bottom level of shelving, Sopronyi said. The papers on the upper level of shelves inside the vault will also need to be removed, cleaned and sanitized because they were in a closed room.

“That would have been the case immediately following the flood or at this point,” Sopronyi said.

The clerk’s office will also be logging the records that are removed in the other departments, including administration, finance, tax and construction.

On a more positive note, Sopronyi said, several documents that were destroyed had already been sent out to be microfilmed under the state’s Paris grant, which the Borough had been doing since 2009. Copies of the existing microfilmed records are at the county archives, and the Borough needed permission to dispose of the destroyed paper copies, since they are considered permanent records.

“The county has been really great helping us through this process,” Sopronyi said.

When storm waters rushed in Borough Hall it moved metal desks across the room and carried papers down the stream to Cranbury. One person brought a ‘glob’ of papers to Hightstown and they had to be pulled apart, piece by piece with rubber gloves before it was determined they were from the tax assessors office.

“Mother Nature does horrible things and the force of water is phenomenal,” Sopronyi said.

The day after the hurricane the administration was in Borough Hall pulling any records or supplies salvageable. The devastation took an emotional toll on employees, given that many see work as home away from home Sopronyi said.

“We have a lot of dedicated and devoted staff and the devastation was very emotionally taxing for us to go in there [Borough Hall] … and see the destruction that was caused,” she said.

In the aftermath of the storm, which hit over the weekend, Borough employees worked to get the office up and running as quickly as possible. By Tuesday employees had moved into the Public Works building and calls were being answered by Tuesday afternoon.

“When there’s a catastrophic event, this [Borough Hall] is where people come. Our big goal at that time was to get ourselves up and operating so that we could open the door and say ‘okay public when you call we’re going to answer the phone. When you come to the door you’re going to be able to come in and speak to somebody,’” Sopronyi said.

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