4 Steps to Save Your Family Treasures After a Disaster

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Disasters can leave behind a trail of destruction. Sometimes, this includes items in your home that hold great sentimental, historic or monetary value to you or a family member.

While it may not be possible to completely restore these items, it is often possible to save them. The Heritage Emergency National Task Force is focused on efforts like this. Led by the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative and trained staff from FEMA’s Office of Environmental Planning and Historic Preservation, the task force is helping teach individuals how to save these family treasures.

If you have water-damaged items, here are four steps they recommend you take to save items such as books, photographs and documents. Remember, after a disaster, you may not have time to follow these steps and save every item, so be sure to focus on what’s most important to you.

Step One: Wear personal protective equipment

Hands hold wet paper over blue tarp

To protect yourself from contaminated water and mold, make sure you wear these items:

  • Disposable vinyl or nitrile gloves.
  • Safety goggles.
  • Protective clothing such as an apron, long-sleeved shirt, long pants, sturdy shoes or boots.
  • N95 mask or face covering (if mold is present).

Step Two: Know how to handle different types of items

Old photos can be the only memento you have of your family history. The first thing you may want to do is take a digital image of the photo and record any written names, notes or dates from the front and back of the photo. Be sure to keep the photo and the identifying information paired.

Person takes picture of a photo in a frame on a table


Remove a photo from its frame (if the photo is not stuck to the glass) to allow it to dry separately. Never pull apart photographs or negatives that are stuck together. You can try soaking them in distilled water, which often helps separate them.

When removing a book from flood waters:

  • avoid immediately opening it.
  • Hold it closed, but do not squeeze it.
  • Allow excess water to drain off.

If a hardcover book has a dust jacket, remove it to dry separately. If a book is only slightly damp, before putting the book down, cover a table or clean surface with absorbent paper and stand the book up with its covers open at a 90-degree angle and its pages fanned open. For a paperback or a large book, insert paper towels in-between pages every quarter inch or so and lay the book flat to dry. You will need to replace the paper towels as they become damp.

Documents and papers

Documents and papers can be particularly fragile after being damaged by flood waters. When they are stuck together, you may need to wrap them in freezer or wax paper and place them in the freezer at the lowest setting for several weeks to months before you can separate them.

Step Three: Clean your items

Flood waters can contain bacteria and other contaminants that you will need to wash from the object. Once you remove items from the water, you should review the best ways to clean your item. For more fragile items, you may need to brush off loose dirt with a soft-bristle brush (do not rub; this will grind in dirt).

Other items, such as photographs, should be rinsed multiple times in distilled water.

Step Four: Dry your items

Person puts photographs onto blue tarp

Gentle air drying is best for all your treasured belongings. While you may be tempted to use a hair dryer, iron or the oven to speed the drying, this can cause irreversible damage. It’s also best to dry your items indoors to avoid damage from direct sunlight. You can hang photographs to dry on a clothesline (inside) using a clothespin placed at the corner. You can use fans and open windows to increase circulation in the room, but don’t aim the fans directly at the objects.

For more information, visit the Save Your Family Treasures webpage to find fact sheets, tips, expanded instructions, and additional resources from the Heritage Emergency National Task Force.

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