before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Hancock County Chancery Clerk Timothy Kellar called LMI president Richard Greenlee, concerned about the thousands of documents located in the records room of the Hancock County Courthouse.
LMI, a Brandon-based provider of software and technology services to city and county governments across the country, was established 20 years ago by University of Southern Mississippi computer science professors to set up much-needed computer accounting and tax systems for city and county governments. Greenlee and two partners joined the company several years ago.
After Kellar’s call, Greenlee backed up Hancock County’s public records and created a mobile emergency disaster imaging and recovery unit, capable of scanning thousands of documents per hour onsite. As soon as he was allowed passage down U.S. 49 after the storm rolled onshore August 29, Greenlee headed to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in search of Kellar and the courthouse.
“Not to sound too dramatic, but we were worried about whether he made it,” said Greenlee. “We later found out that he rode the storm out atop a building despite a 40-foot tidal surge. We found him and the courthouse, which had its roof blown off and thousands of documents swimming in two feet of water and mud. Black and green mold was everywhere, and everything around the courthouse was tinderbox.”
Greenlee knew he had to work fast in the uncontrolled environment — the courthouse was boarded up, damp and stifling hot — to save the public records contained in bound books, unbound books and file folders, which by law could not leave the premises. Without access to those records, real estate activity was at a standstill. Insurance companies would soon be knocking on the door. Lowe’s was waiting for a green light from a title company to begin building an emergency retail store.
With masks, gloves and brushes in hand, Greenlee and his staff categorized documents in three areas according to the level of moisture: moist, wet and stuck together covered in mold.
“We were challenged with physical infrastructure,” said Greenlee. “We had to place all documents in a refrigerated truck to slow the deterioration process. We had no place to house people. There was, of course, no electricity save for a generator. No phone service, no communication.”
To process moist and wet documents, Greenlee’s staff used a flat bed scanner that operates on a series of sensors and vacuums featuring a camera that captures the front and back of documents. Severely damaged documents took longer to process via a book scanner.
“The cost and time of freezing and shipping all books and documents off to be chemically cleaned, treated and returned would have been astronomical,” said Greenlee.
In four days, Greenlee’s team scanned 800,000 documents so the chancery clerk’s office could begin allowing residents to process insurance claims, buy and sell real estate, and conduct other transactions. By October 17, another 1.25 million documents had been scanned, representing 31 years of data, and the public was allowed to do full title searches and view all records online.
After the scanning process, the documents were sent to LMI’s indexing location, where a staff of 30 began classifying them. Land records alone required about 20 different fields. All Hancock County records will be completely catalogued by year-end.
A yearlong journey
Hancock County Chancery Clerk’s system changeover began more than a year ago, when Kellar began researching imaging systems and diligently reviewing working systems in Mississippi counties and Louisiana parishes.
“In our testing of six or seven systems, we not only relied on Hancock County’s employees and staff, but also included the testing and recommendations of various attorneys, abstracters and other public users in Hancock and other counties,” said Kellar, who also serves as county administrator. “When choosing a total imaging and records management system, the most important and valuable aspect of the system is the efficiency of the transaction process and the complete ease of use by all users of the systems, including not only county staff but also the public.
“The second most important aspect of moving to a technology-based system is the company, or partner, that will be implementing and continuing to support the county throughout the entire relationship … One cannot put a value on choosing the right partner. We found that with LMI and ImagePro.”
ImagePro, LMI’s most popular product, is a software package designed to manage the entire operations of a government office, including imaging, scanning, retention, database retrieval and all cashiering services of public records.
“Of all the systems Hancock reviewed and tested, ImagePro was by far the best,” said Kellar. “ImagePro provides a step-by-step simple and extremely efficient process for instantaneously recording all documents including scanning, stamping, receiving payments, check endorsement, indexing, etc. Most of the other systems we looked at required many different steps that required recorders to enter and exit numerous screens and sub-systems to simply record a document. Before we had ImagePro, it would take us days to receive, record, index, process payment for and return documents. Now the entire process takes less than five minutes.”
LMI’s ImagePro public search capabilities were extremely user-friendly, added Kellar. “Most other systems that we reviewed had public search stations that were difficult to learn and use and would have resulted in unhappy users and much additional work for the county staff in training and performing work for the public users,” he said. “LMI’s training of not only the county staff but also for the public took a day. ImagePro is the most efficient and easy to use system that we found. That is the most valuable aspect of LMI’s ImagePro system.”
LMI has some 50 accounts nationwide, with 35 to 40 accounts centered in Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama. The company recently completed 31 years of records for Madison County and 20 years for Rankin County, and plans to start recording another 10 years of records for Rankin County when another fiscal budget years begins. The company recently installed systems in Neshoba and Winston counties and, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, calls of interest are streaming in daily from city and county governments across the country.
“There’s been lots of talk about disaster preparedness, and after the Department of Homeland Security audited Mississippi, the number one vulnerability was the land records room,” said Greenlee. “It’s the only place you officially own anything. If a disaster occurred, we’d be in the dark ages. Lack of funding has been a limitation, but now that Congress is looking into it, maybe we’ll see the process expedited.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.