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 humidifiers 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."
Long effort foreseen
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."
Edwards was pumping water out of his Arlington County basement Sunday night when he was called about the flooding.
"Gotta go," he told his wife and four kids, jumping in his pickup and driving downtown through pounding rain.
When he arrived, he recalled, a foot-deep lake was accumulating at the bottom of the sloping driveway off Ninth Street NW. Gravitating to the lowest point, water rushed into the Archives' basement, at times filling it higher than the head of a standing man, eight feet deep in all, submerging banks of metal-encased transformers that power the building.
"I knew we were in deep trouble," Edwards recalled. "I knew we had lots of damage."
Since Monday, dozens of workers have pumped the water out and begun cleaning and repairing the wiring. The flooding damaged the Archive's two-year-old McGowan Theater, also in the basement; plastic tarp now covers the 300 seats and clear, snakelike tubes transport warm air from the dehumidifiers.
Archives officials repeatedly stressed that the building's trove of documents — from genealogical and Civil War records to photographs from World War II — are all safe in areas located above the basement level.
Archivists would not show reporters those areas, fearing that the humidity would creep in as people came and went. But they showed off the main rotunda, where, beneath grand murals depicting Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, the display cases that normally hold the Charters of Freedom were empty.
At the time of the flooding, said Susan Cooper, the Archives' spokeswoman, the documents were encased in a vaulted area, as they always are when the building is closed. She would not specify the vault's location, citing security reasons.
When he arrived at the building at 6 a.m. Monday, Weinstein said, the first place he checked was the rotunda, to see for himself that it was dry. Then he called the White House to pass along word that the country's most storied documents were safe and sound.
He got its voice mail and left a message.