Photos hung on a clothes line to dry after being damaged by floodwaters.

Memories can often be a casualty of natural disasters. Items we cherish, like photographs and other keepsakes, can be ruined by flood waters or destructive winds. 

However, there are ways to safeguard and even recover these items after a disaster—and we have a task force working on helping do just that.

The Heritage Emergency National Task Force was formed in 1995, after the need for a partnership to help protect our nation’s cultural heritage was identified.

Co-sponsored by FEMA and the Smithsonian Institution, the task force consists of 42 federal agencies and national service organizations that work together to make sure readiness and preparedness information goes out to libraries, museums, and archives on how to protect our cultural heritage before, during, and after a disaster. Although this group is focused on broader community efforts around cultural heritage and preservation, much of the same advice can be provided to individuals as well, with regard to steps needed to prepare for a disaster and protect precious family heirlooms. 

I sat down with the administrator of the task force, Lori Foley, to find out what you can do to safeguard and recover those valuable items.

What can people do to safeguard items before a disaster?

People lose things in disasters all the time and too frequently, highlighting the need to prepare ahead of time. Disasters happen anywhere, anyplace, so it’s important that each of us thinks about protecting our treasured possessions.

Protecting your possessions requires planning and forethought. The first thing people can do is make sure they compile their essential documents: wills, motor vehicle and tax records, power of attorney documents, passports, bank and credit card account information, and the passwords that accompany all those accounts. Physical or digital copies of the documents can go in your emergency go-kit.

For materials that are large or awkward that you can’t pack in your car when you’re evacuating, bring them to the highest point of your home if time permits. Preferably stow them in something waterproof, like a large, lidded plastic tub, and make sure they are secured somewhere so they’re not just lying around in an upstairs room. These items could include things like pottery, baskets, quilts, or framed photographs that just won’t fit in the car with the kids and family dog or other pets.

What about items with sentimental value after a disaster, such as photo albums or books?

When disaster strikes, often times what people really miss the most are photographs—pieces of paper that somehow manage to trigger memories and prompt smiles. When photographs are damaged by a disaster it’s important to know that many times it’s possible to salvage them. They don’t necessarily need to be thrown into a debris pile.

If loose photographs are muddy, you can rinse them in clean water and then dry them by hanging them by the corners on a clothes line or by laying them on paper towels with the image facing up. If the photographs are stuck together, they can be soaked in clean water until they separate, up to 48 hours.

If you have a few damp books, you can stand them up on absorbent paper and fan them open to air dry—indoors, if possible. Another alternative for drying a book is to freeze it. Wrap the book with freezer or wax paper, place it in a plastic bag, and place the open plastic bag in a freezer, preferably with a frost-free setting and set at the lowest possible temperature. It can take anywhere from several weeks to several months to dry, depending on the temperature of the freezer and how wet the book was.

You can check on it every month by trying to open the book carefully. If the pages don’t separate, the book’s not yet completely dry. It’s never going to look like what it did pre-disaster—you have to understand it will look different, but it will still function and be the book that’s important to you.

This seems like it could be a bit overwhelming. What do people need to know before they start the process?

The first thing to do: take a deep breath. Figure out what matters most to you and prioritize the items you want to salvage. You can buy time by freezing some of them, and that way you can turn your attention to other items.

For instance, if you have the time and space and access to clean water, you might want to salvage photographs first, because they are often the items that are the most precious. Books, documents, most photographs, and even textiles can be frozen until you can turn your attention to them.

When do people need to go to an expert for help when salvaging these items?

People need to go to an expert when they feel they are out of their league or when a precious item is badly damaged. Because you face so many priorities following a disaster, it’s important to know there are resources and people out there who can help you.

There are preservation and conservation centers around the country with emergency lines where staff can provide you with advice and help walk you through the process of evaluating whether your object can be salvaged—and possibly give you some advice on how to go about it, step-by-step. Some larger museums and libraries have conservation staff who can help answer questions.

There is also a link on the American Institute for Conservation webpage called Find a Conservator, which helps you locate a conservator near you who specializes in the format or type of material you’re interested in saving.

Is there a health component to salvaging your items? What do they need to do before they start handling these materials?

The first priority is always personal safety. When you reenter your home after it’s been flooded, think about the source of water. If it’s flood water that includes sewage and household chemicals, you want to make sure you’re handling the materials with vinyl or nitrile gloves, protective clothing, and safety goggles. If there is mold when you reenter your home, or the items are moldy, you want to make sure you’re wearing a respirator or an N100 face mask to protect yourself.

Anything else you’d like to add as resources that are available in a community to assist people? 

Salvage demonstrations were also offered in North Carolina following Hurricane Matthew. North Carolina is unique in that it has a state-level cultural resources SWAT team, if you will. CREST, the Cultural Resources Emergency Support Team, was instrumental in reaching out to cultural institutions to see if they suffered flood damage. FEMA partnered with CREST to have them staff a disaster recovery center to demonstrate how to salvage and care for damaged family belongings. I wish every state had such a resource!

One resource that is available to everyone is the mobile app ERS: Emergency Response and Salvage. This app gives hands-on advice on salvaging different types of objects as well as safety tips and action steps. It’s a must-have for museums and other cultural institutions, and it’s a great app to have on your personal cell phone. And the best part: it’s free for Apple, Android, and BlackBerry devices.

What was the most memorable time where your work impacted a survivor’s life?

I was deployed to Louisiana following the August 2016 floods, and that was a really transformative experience. Working with the Smithsonian Institution, we were able to set up a table at a few disaster recovery centers so survivors could come by if they wanted to talk about salvaging their cherished family heirlooms and photographs. The Smithsonian’s preservation experts demonstrated various salvage techniques and discussed how to protect prized possessions against future damage.

I was so impressed by the strength and courage that was exhibited by the disaster survivors—their desire to pick up the pieces and move on with life. Learning how to salvage items that have no monetary value but have huge sentimental value—photographs, paintings, recipes—provided a measure of relief.

My greatest reward from being deployed? Being able to listen to stories of survival, and helping people save the things that matter the most to them, so they can move forward in their recovery.


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