After a flood

After the flood

After a flood

Guidelines for Taking Care of Your Personal Heritage

Resources for Conserving Flood Damaged Photos, Antiques and Heirlooms

As I sit here in Durham, NC watching the news and see the tremendous damage left behind by hurricane Matthew, my heart goes out to all the victims.  The loss of life here (26 so far have been reported by abc11news), in the Caribbean (over 800 in Haiti alone) and in other areas is disastrous.  I am saddened by the stories of people who have lost so much.  The news tells us of also about the loss or damage to a lifetime of memories. Family photos, antiques and other heirlooms suffer water damage after a flood.  If this is your situation or you are helping victim, this blog is for you.

When homes are flooded and lives upended, treasured possessions like marriage licenses, birth certificates, old letters and other documents, photos, and other family items may be water soaked and damaged or they may be gone for good.

While in many situations you may feel like you must throw everything away and start over, this is not always the case today. Many damaged objects can be preserved and restored, so don’t automatically think you need to throw them away.  Of course, it is not possible to save everything, but you can save many valued objects if they are untouched by sewage or chemicals. Remember, mud left behind by floods often contain a significant amount of toxins. If cherished objects have been in contact with sewage or chemicals, you should call a professional recovery company for help in cleaning and restoring these items.

There is a lot of information available via the internet on how to save and conserve water damaged objects. I have tried to synthesize some of what’s available and would like to offer some help on the restoration and saving of items.

BUT…First things first.  Life over stuff.  Before we talk about saving the items, let’s look at what FEMA advises on personal safety because personal safety must be the highest priority when entering buildings damaged by floodwaters.  If you are able to enter a structure, find and remove your heirlooms but do not spend time in the structure cleaning individual items, as the water is still doing damage to the structure.  Plan to quickly and safely get in and get out!


  • Check for structural damage before re-entering your home to avoid being trapped in a building collapse.
  • Keep power off until an electrician has inspected your system for safety.
  • Turn off the gas. Be alert for gas leaks.
  • Look before you step. After a flood, the ground and floors are covered with debris, including broken bottles and nails. Floors and stairs that have been covered with mud can be very slippery.
  • Rescue the most valuable items, but never attempt to salvage belongings at the expense of your own safety.
  • Wear long sleeves, sturdy shoes or waterproof boots, and plastic or rubber gloves during cleanup.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and clean water or use a hand-cleaning gel with alcohol in it.
  • Mold can form within 48 hours; you will need to work fast. The goal is to reduce the humidity and temperature around your treasures as you proceed to clean and dry them. If you do encounter extensive mold, use protective gear such as gloves, goggles, and an N100 face mask, available at most hardware stores.

(Source: FIMA Fact Sheet)


So, once you have the items safely in hand  turn your attention to how to deal with the flood-damaged items.

Often step number one is to evaluate.  Don’t try to save everything. Determine what can be easily purchased vs what is irreplaceable.

Determine whether you value the item for its historic importance, whether it has a monetary importance, or just sentimental reasons. You have to balance out what makes the most sense for you for saving.

Next, let’s look at some of the most common the types of historic items you may want to save.

Photographs: Rinse with cool, clean water, as necessary. Hang with clips on non-image areas or lay flat on absorbent paper. If you’d like more on how to protect water-damaged photos, offers a quick guide to steps you can take to minimize long-term damage to photos and paper heirlooms.

Newspapers: Air dry on a flat surface.  Avoid wiping or touching because the ink may run.

Books: If rinsing is necessary, hold book closed. If partially wet or damp, stand on top or bottom edge with cover open to 90-degree angle and air dry.

Paper: Air dry flat as individual sheets or small piles up to 1/4″. Interleave with blotter paper (plain white paper towels work well) and replace interleaving when damp. Do not unfold/separate individual wet sheets.

Freeze any wet photos or documents that you can’t get to right away. This helps prevent mold and gives you some extra time to get the rest of your life in order before you start the process of salvaging photographs.

Consult a professional conservator before freezing metal, plate glass, paintings, very old photographs, and furniture.

Textiles: Rinse, drain and blot with clean towels/cotton sheets. Block and shape to original form. Air dry using air conditioning/fans. Do not unfold delicate fabrics. Do not stack wet textiles.

Furniture: Rinse/sponge surfaces gently to clean. Blot. Air dry slowly. If paint is blistered or flaking, air dry slowly without removing dirt or moisture. Hold veneer in place with weights while drying.  Separate the weights from the veneer with a protective layer.

Upholstery: Rinse. Remove separate pieces, such as cushions and removable seats. Wrap in cloth to air dry and replace cloth when damp.

Framed paintings: Carefully remove from frames in dry area. Keep paintings horizontal, paint side up, elevated on blocks. Avoid direct sunlight.

Framed art on paper or photographs with glass fronts:  Remove from frames, unless art is stuck to glass. Dry slowly, image-side up with nothing touching the image surface. If art sticks to glass, leave it in frame and dry glass-side down.

Water damage after a flood is a real heartache.  stay tuned, in a few days I will post other resources for help with your clean-up.


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