Beneath a Treasure of Documents, a Stinky Mess

Air hoses snake out of the National Archives. Cleanup crews are trying to both dry the building out and rid it of moldy, sour air.
Air hoses snake out of the National Archives. Cleanup crews are trying to both dry the building out and rid it of moldy, sour air. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2006

The chief archivist of the United States of America immediately seized on a single, all-important question when an aide woke him at 1:40 a.m. Monday to report massive flooding at the National Archives.

Are the Charters of Freedom safe? Allen Weinstein asked groggily, referring to that venerable trio of documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Not to worry, the aide assured. The papers were dry in their vaults near the rotunda where they are normally displayed to legions of people who travel from all over to see them.

Emerging from a deep sleep in his Bethesda bedroom, Weinstein came to realize that the problem was in the building's basement. Tens of thousands of gallons of water had gushed in from Constitution Avenue, knocking out transformers that power the building's lights and air conditioning.

Four days after the deluge, the Archives remained dark and airless as officials took a small army of reporters and television crews on a tour of the damage, which they say will cost $2 million to repair. Only three years ago, the Archives completed a $100 million renovation.

Yesterday, the building had no running water and no working restrooms. In the basement, lines of grime stained the walls, marking the level to which the floodwaters had risen. Clumps of debris -- burgundy carpet, soggy drywall and beige ceiling tiles -- were piled here and there. The air was thick, dank and sour.

"It's starting to smell like the bayou, isn't it?" said Tim Edwards, the Archives' facility manager, sweat beading on his forehead as he led the way, the churning hum of a half-dozen generators in the background.

Despite the damage, the Archives still plans to host its annual Fourth of July ceremony on its front steps, during which the Declaration of Independence is read aloud. But Weinstein could not say when the building will reopen to the public.

He said that the Archives would typically draw 5,000 visitors a day during June and July. Now, when they arrive, tourists find security guards directing them elsewhere while crews -- who are working around the clock -- haul in industrial dehumidifiers to dry the air and protect millions of documents from mildew.

"I don't want to disappoint any more families," Weinstein said before adding that he hopes the building opens next week, perhaps as early as Wednesday. "I would bet on it, but then I'm an optimist by nature."

Edwards gave a somewhat more pessimistic prognosis, estimating that it would not be until the week of July 9 "before we can think about the public coming back in."

Even when the doors open, he said, "we will be dealing with this for months."

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