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Downtown Centre floods, destroys records

A number of damaged Washington County records were being refrigerated Monday in preparation for freeze drying.
Extensive water damage to Washington County records occurred over the weekend when a water line burst at the Downtown Centre in Johnson City.
“It’s very expensive to freeze dry,” County Mayor George Jaynes said Monday as he completed arrangements to send the records to Nashville.
While a complete inventory of all the records affected was not yet finished, Jaynes said Circuit Court Clerk Karen Guinn’s office appeared to have suffered the most damage.
Also affected were records in Chancery Court. Clerk and Master Brenda Sneyd called the incident “catastrophic. I could just sit down and cry.”
Once loaded into a refrigerated truck, the records will be sent to Richard & Richards, a restoration firm in Nashville. The company has a “blast freezer” according to Guinn that was used extensively to restore records after recent flooding in Nashville. Guinn said Monday that because of “confidentiality concerns” she expects to accompany the records to Nashville. The county will probably pay for the expenses of restoration with funds from unappropriated surplus in the budget, according to Jaynes.
Jaynes expects Offices maintained by County Trustee Jack Daniels and County Clerk Doyle Cloyd at the Downtown Center will be closed for at least a week. In the meantime, county residents who wish to pay their taxes in person or those needing license plates or marriage licenses are being directed to the Washington County Courthouse on Main Street in Jonesborough.
Mayor Jaynes called County Mayor-elect Dan Eldridge once he was notified of the damage. “He will learn that this is a 24-hour a day job,” Jaynes observed. Jaynes received the initial call that water was spilling from the front door of the Downtown Centre on West Market Street. The Mayor then called County Safety Officer Jim Powell who arrived and turned off the building’s water system. It is expected that the records will be transferred to the Tennessee State Museum & Archive once restoration is completed. While the State Archive will not charge the county for record storage, arrangements will need to be made for the return of material to Washington County. Jaynes estimated that as many as 400 boxes of records were affected.
Officials were alerted to the flooding Sunday after attorney Art Flower whose office is opposite the Downtown Centre called 911. Fowler saw water pouring out the front door of the building .The Clerk and Master said she was called about 6:00 p.m. Sneyd said that in her opinion four Chancery Court Minute Books were completely destroyed. The Clerk and Master says many of the damaged materials are written in ink that is no longer legible. The minute books are hand written and often used for an index to the Clerk’s older records. She added that some of her records had been stored with the records from Circuit Court.
No probate records were affected by the flooding, Sneyd said. An earlier flood at the Main Street Courthouse in Jonesborough before Probate was transferred to the Clerk and Master’s office resulted in a $7,000 bill to remove mold from water damaged records, she added. Costs of the numerous water damaged records are expected to run much higher as the result of the Sunday flood at the Downtown Centre.
“It is bad,” Guinn observed Monday as she worked to put records in dry, undamaged boxes at the Downtown Centre. The Circuit Court Clerk, who is also responsible for Criminal, Juvenile and Sessions Court records, said she worked until 4 a.m. Monday along with staff members. “They went home, took a shower and returned back to the Downtown Center,” she reported Monday.
“Some of our records are really old documents,” Guinn noted. “They go back into the 1930s on up. There are a number of divorces, law suits and old minute books.”
Both Guinn and Sneyd along with County Recorder Ginger Jilton have been active in requests for better records storage. Several heritage groups, genealogical societies and historical associations have been active in urging Washington County government and the County Commission to establish an Archive for the preservation of records dating back to the 18th Century before Tennessee became a state. The Clerk and Master pointed out that a number of meetings have been held with the goal of developing more secure archive procedures. These have included the need for keeping records electronically or placing hard copies in a climate-controlled space.
The Clerks in both Circuit and Chancery Court are working under a 48 to 72 hour deadline to move the records to Nashville. The restoration firm indicated that in order to achieve good results with restoration the records need to be placed into the “blast freezer” within the 72 hour maximum time frame.
Records belonging to the County Recorder and Sheriff were also stored at the Downtown Center. Many of the Recorder’s records are already on microfilm. Sheriff Ed Graybeal’s records were stored higher on shelves above the mark where the water crested. Other records from Graybeal’s office were of the type not required by law to be permanently retained.
Records at the Downtown Center were stored on 10-foot shelves in a large room that also contained unused office equipment and other miscellaneous items.
Jaynes indicated Monday that some of the water damage at the Downtown Center could be covered by insurance. Spotless Restoration of Johnson City along with inmates from the Detention Center were engaged in clean up at the Downtown Centre Monday.
A faulty valve in the records storage room apparently was the cause of the breakage in a two-inch water line at the Downtown Center, according to Powell. Once the line burst, approximately three inches of water cascaded throughout the building. The County Safety Officer indicated that water at the Center might have been leaking since Friday.