Launch Slideshow

What Possessions Can Be Saved?

Volunteers helping members of the community clean and scan damaged photos at a regional "rescue center".

What Possessions Can Be Saved?

Volunteers helping members of the community clean and scan damaged photos at a regional "rescue center".

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(Boulder County Colo.) Along with the losses associated with property damage to a flooded house or business, much of the soaked contents are often damaged beyond repair and must be discarded. However, like the building envelope itself, important items can be cleaned and preserved. (As expected, clean water and gray water flood events will be easier to salvage things from than black water (sewage) flooding).

Some in the disaster restoration business go by the mantra "anything can be cleaned", but while this may be true, only certain irreplaceable items may be worth the heroic measures needed to clean and sanitize them. Upholstered furniture, carpets, novels—forget it, but a box of grandma's old baby clothes may easily be salvaged by running them through the wash a time or two. And things stored in boxes might prove easier to clean than expected since they will be soaked but not necessarily infiltrated with mud and debris.

Often the most important things flood victims want or need to save are the toughest to salvage such as paper documents, old photos, and other media. Luckily there's a lot of information available about how to do this and in our area, regional facilities and volunteer resources even popped up to offer help.

The point is to give the property owner the chance to sift through items for valuables before tossing it all into the debris pile at the curb. Most people assume anything soaked is a total loss but if you present the possibility of salvaging photos, videos, documents, and precious items to your client, you may be a real hero to them in this time of crisis when they have already lost so much.

First Steps On Site

The first step is to keep the affected items cool and wet before they can be sorted and cleaned. Despite the commonsense notion of laying everything out in the sun to dry, flooded/contaminated items shouldn't be dried and then wet again by cleaning. Direct sunlight can kill mold with its UV rays, but some materials need to be dried slowly to prevent damage. Wood will split, papers will shrivel, and photos and art will fade if exposed to strong sunlight when wet.
The second step is for the property owner go through their stuff and separate items to be salvaged as soon as possible as mold can set in within 48 hours.

The third step is to stabilize the items until they can be properly cleaned and dried. If possible, mud and other contaminants should be rinsed off with clean water. If the water is off or time is short, you may have to skip this step.
Sealing the items wet in plastic bags will keep them from drying out before they can be cleaned but does not slow the damaging affects of moisture. The best way to stabilize wet items is to freeze them. This halts the propagation of mold and other biological contaminants. Some people in our area bought chest freezers and filled them up with freezer bags of their soaked paperwork and photographs so they can work on salvaging them months later when they have the time. Refrigeration doesn't help for long term storage as mold can grow in temperatures near freezing.

Note-- Some types of media shouldn't be frozen (see the recommendations for specific media in the links that follow).

Paper Documents and Photographs

A soak and thorough rinse in tap water is the basic cleaning step for flooded papers and photos. Besides rescuing sentimental papers like your marriage certificate or college diploma, you probably have tax and legal documents that you must save and hold on to. Standard office paper falls apart easily when wet but can be dried and saved if you are very careful. Peeling apart wet pages that are stuck together may be easier with the stack of paper partially dry but you may have to experiment with this process. Individual sheets can be dried laid flat on screening or hanging vertically from clotheslines set up indoors (if the paper is dry enough to hang by clothespins without tearing the paper). Be sure to use plastic clothespins—wooden ones can hold moisture and mold spores.

Photographs printed from negatives usually fare better in these processes since they were originally made in a wet process that included a water wash. Common, resin-coated paper prints (from commercial film processors) are more durable when wet and can be dried lying flat or hung up with one or two clothespins. Fiber-based photo paper (older black and white images and fine art prints) needs to handled more delicately when wet and will curl when it dries. Because of this, drying between two screens or hanging with clothespins on the bottom corners may be necessary to make the prints dry flat. Of course photographs can be reprinted if you have the negatives in good condition.

Keep or Copy?

Papers and photos that have been contaminated by gray or black water flooding may contain e-coli and other infectious agents that you don't want to store in your file cabinets and shoe boxes, so you have to decide if you want to try to preserve the originals or just clean them well enough to be duplicated and then discarded. A quick rinse should be sufficient for putting papers and photos on a photocopier or scanner, and this can be done before the items are fully dried which can save time.

For originals that you want to keep, I found no reference to cleaning and sanitizing paper and photos during my research so I would suggest trying the same bacteriostatic/fungistatic disinfectants that are used on building materials (see the Sanitizing and Drying Out blog in this series). Apply the product sparingly at first to make sure it doesn't damage the ink or photographic image before pouring it on everything you wish to preserve. The latest botanical anti-microbial formulas contain no chemical solvents and are less hazardous to the people handling them so they would be what I would try first. Keep in mind that this process is experimental and that documents and images that have undergone flood damage are likely to continue degrading over time.

As when handling any contaminated material, you should wear rubber gloves, a protective mask or respirator, and splash-protection goggles. Bacterial infections can start in your eyes or in the mucous membranes of your mouth and nose just as easily as through breaks in your skin so protect your face and not just your hands.

Fine Art

For paintings and other fine art, you will need to get them to a professional conservator as quickly as possible for the greatest chance of preservation. Call the conservator you wish to hire right away and follow their directions on what to do. For paintings, protecting the paint surface is the most important thing. When removing artwork from a flooded building, don't rub it or bump it against anything, and handle it with the painted surface facing up if possible. Similarly, if you need to rinse any debris off, gently flood it with clean water while it is lying horizontally. However, if the paint layer is lifted up (tented) or loose, rinsing it or putting it near a fan may cause much more damage. Dry the painting lying face-up away from direct sunlight and make sure it is propped up so air can circulate around the back of the canvas. Do not stack paintings, and don't set anything on the paint surface when wet. If any paint has flaked off, save the paint fragments in a plastic bag to give to the conservator. If the painting is fully dry before it goes to the conservator, store and transport it face-up in a box or tray to catch any loose paint chips and cover it with thin plastic sheeting. If areas of the painting appear washed out and whitish, it doesn't mean it is a total loss. Water will make the outer surface of some paints and varnishes break down and emulsify, but this is easy to repair.

The three conservators I interviewed had no suggestions for a cleaning or sanitizing step so rinsing the painting if it is already soaked (and the paint surface is physically sound) is the limit of what should be done before it goes to the professional. Once at a conservation lab, your art and artifacts may be professionally freeze dried or vacuum dried and otherwise treated with methods beyond the scope of the layman so no self-restoration tips are available.
Prints, photos, and other framed artwork in should be removed from their frames to hasten drying. Paper media and the pages of valuable books or photo albums may be interleaved with sheets of wax paper or blotter paper to keep the pages from sticking together while drying.

Local Memory Rescue Centers

After the Colorado floods, a non-profit group known as the Memory Preservation Coalition set up four regional document and media rescue centers to give people a place to clean and process their damaged items free of charge for five weeks. These locations were manned by volunteers during the height of the clean up who helped affected residents rinse, dry and digitally scan all of the photos and papers as they needed to rescue. In addition, other forms of media such as tapes and films could be rinsed and dried at the sites. The rescue centers were set up in coalition member stores that offer digital media transfer services so if flood victims wanted to have their damaged media copied to new digital media, they could purchase those services at the same place.

The coalition also offers a service to help return photos found after a natural disaster with their owners who may have lost them in a flood, tornado, or hurricane. This effort started after Superstorm Sandy last year when volunteers picked up over 30,000 photos and posted them on a site to help reconnect them to families who assumed the photos were lost forever.  http://memorypreservationcoalition.org/