Damaged documents revived online

In the spring of 1997, Grand Forks, N.D., was hit by a devastating flood that covered 90 percent of the area, displaced 50,000 people and damaged thousands of county property documents.

Now, the North Dakota county soon will test the waters with a new Web-based service that allows users to access those documents with a flat monthly subscription fee.

Dean Dahl, the county's information systems director, said several banks and law offices have expressed interest in the application that will likely cost them $100 a month for unlimited and secure access to documents that date to the mid-1800s. In the long run, it's cheaper for them, he said.

Providing online property documents is the latest development for the county of 66,000. "When we first got into this, we didn't even have a Web page," Dahl said, adding that the site (www.co.grand-forks.nd.us) was established only in the spring of 2001. In addition to offering a variety of county information, the site enables tax payments via credit card.

After the flood, Dahl said the county chemically treated the wet documents so the paper would stop molding. But it was just a matter of time before the "warped and brittle" documents would disintegrate, he said.

Prior to the flood, the county had been in the process of scanning its documents and creating an electronic records and content management system. The matter became more urgent once the flooding damaged documents.

With financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, county officials hired a company that continually scanned the documents for two years, Dahl said. The company also recommended the use of OTG Software Inc. solutions to manage the electronic document system. The process was completed in 2000.

The documents were stored on optical drives, Dahl said. The county also provided PCs and large monitors in its offices so that people from businesses and the general public could search the documents by grantee or grantor name or document number, he said. Microfilm and microfiche versions also are available.

The total cost of the equipment and software was about $218,000, but part of that was offset by FEMA grants, according to Dahl. The soon-to-be-released Web-based version was implemented with OTG's WebXtender product, he added.

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