Clerk of Courts, Superhero

By Nerino Petro Jr.

Almost everyone in the United States knows that Hurricane Katrina was one of the most devastating storms ever to hit the country—the most costly and third most deadly. Often overlooked, however, is the damage caused by Hurricane Rita, which struck approximately one month later. Especially hard hit was Cameron Parish along the Gulf Coast near Texas; the parish seat of Cameron was essentially obliterated, and 90 percent of its buildings and homes were destroyed. In fact, the only structure left standing in Cameron was the Cameron Courthouse.

The clerk of court in Cameron Parish, Carl Broussard, and his staff of eight heeded the lessons of Katrina and were able to save a significant portion of the court records by responding quickly to the threat of severe damage. Although most of lower Cameron Parish was literally blown away in the storm, they saved all of the evidence for pending cases as well as five years of criminal records—400 boxes’ worth—by moving the material to the second floor of the courthouse before the storm struck.

Beyond their efforts, however, were an additional 200 boxes of legacy records stored in the courthouse basement, which were soaked when the basement flooded. Broussard noted that the courthouse is the only structure in Cameron that even had a basement, although it was only partially below ground. After evacuating the courthouse, Broussard was unable to return to it for two days; he recalls that the scene greeting him was “like a bomb blast”: “Everything on the main highway was destroyed, all of the debris from the nearby businesses was piled up against the courthouse, and not a telephone pole was standing in Cameron Parish.”

The basement of the courthouse remained flooded for about a week, until U.S. Army personnel were able to use tanker trucks of clean water to flush out the mud, which was then removed by a large vacuum truck. The basement records had been ripped from their shelves and lay buried in mud and debris. Given all the restoration work going on in New Orleans, Broussard was unable for a while to locate a document restoration company to save his wet records; he finally contracted with a company from Fort Worth to remove and freeze dry them until they could be cleaned.

Work on salvaging these records is still ongoing; the most damaged documents will be digitized as soon as possible and the originals destroyed because they have water damage and carry mold and odor. Broussard is going to such extraordinary steps to preserve these legacy records because the microfilm backups he inherited when he took office have deteriorated over the years. Broussard surely was farsighted when he began digitizing records from the time he took office. He also began digitizing older records; these electronic files now stretch back to 1969. In addition to the hard copy materials that made it through undamaged, all the court computers and hard drives containing the digitized documents were also undamaged. These circumstances enabled his office and the courts to begin functioning again in a remarkably short period of time.

When asked how they were able to save so many of his office’s records, Broussard cites early action: The staff “began pre-evacuation steps the Tuesday before the storm and, in addition, had the help of trustee prisoners in moving the critical records.” Commenting on the parish’s overall level of preparedness, Broussard explained that “folks down here don’t get really scared until the wind gets above 100 miles an hour, and then they really get concerned. Rita was a category five hurricane before it hit Cameron. Even before the evacuation was ordered, we started moving and didn’t wait on the civil authorities.”

Two weeks after Rita hit Cameron Parish, the clerk’s office relocated to a bank building in nearby Jennings. The following week, it was back in operation, utilizing the computers and records that had been saved. On February 1, 2006, the office was able to return to the Cameron courthouse—even though the “office” was a construction trailer on the front lawn. Broussard’s first order of business upon return was to ensure that all records now are maintained above ground level, on the building’s second floor. The Cameron courts reopened in nearby Lake Charles in October 2005 and resumed trials in the Cameron Courthouse on April 1, 2006. Built in the 1930s as part of the government’s Works Progress Administration, which used materials extracted from the riverbed 500 yards away, the courthouse has withstood the assaults of two category five storms. Parish residents are understandably very proud.

Nerino Petro Jr. is the practice management advisor for the State Bar of Wisconsin. He can be reached at .

Copyright 2006

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