updated May 25, 2004

Reclaiming Precious Heirlooms from Flood Waters

As the tornado damage cleanup work continues and the flood water recede, homeowners may be finding some of their heirlooms damaged. Personal items such as heirlooms, keepsakes, photographs, textiles and books may be found wet, torn or almost destroyed. Some items, with proper handling, however, may be saved and reclaimed.

Handle wet photos carefully; the surfaces may be fragile. Wet photos may be rinsed in clean water and sealed in a plastic garbage bag. If possible, put wax paper between each photo. If a freezer is available, freeze the photos immediately. Later, photos may be defrosted, separated and air-dried. If no freezer or refrigerator is available, rinse wet photos in clean water and dry them, face up, in a single layer on a clean surface (a table, window screen or clean plastic laid out on the ground). Don't dry photos in direct sunlight. Don't worry if the photos curl as they dry. A photo expert can be contacted later about flattening them. With the use of technology, some damaged photos can be scanned, and tears and spots corrected using a photo editing program, and then printed. Family and friends that have copies of photos of persons who have been involved in loss of most of their possessions may want to offer copies of their photos to the family to help replace the "family photo collection."

Valuable textiles, such as quilts, laces, needlework or tapestries, will be weaker and heavier when wet and will require extra care. Wear plastic disposable gloves, protective clothing, goggles, and if possible, use a respirator while working on flood-damaged textiles. Do not attempt to unfold extremely delicate fabrics if the fragile layers are stuck together. Wait until they are dry and consult a conservator.

To remove mud and debris, re-wet the textiles with gently flowing clean water or with a fine hose spray. Gently press water out with the palm of your hand. Don't wring or twist dry. Remove excess water with dry towels, blotting paper or blank newsprint, especially if the dyes are bleeding. Avoid stacking textiles while drying. Reshape the textile while it is damp to approximate its original contours.

Don't place textiles in sealed plastic bags. Air dry indoors with the lights on to inhibit mold and circulate the air with air conditioning, fans and open windows. Use a dehumidifier in the room with the wet textiles and drain the collecting container often.

If heirloom items are broken or begin to fall apart, place broken pieces, bits of veneer and detached parts in labeled open containers. Don't attempt to repair objects until completely dry or, in the case of important materials, until you consult with a professional conservator.

Documents, books and works of art on paper may be extremely fragile when wet. Free the edges of prints and paper objects in mats and frames, if possible. These should be allowed to air dry. Soaked papers should also be air dried or may be kept in a refrigerator or freezer until they can be treated by a professional conservator.

Remove the backing and wet paintings from the frame but not from the stretcher. Air dry, face up, away from direct sunlight.

If the books are underwater or soaking wet, pick up each one with both hands and place it in a non-paper container (milk crate, wire basket, etc.) so it can be transported safely to an area where it can dry. Keep the book closed while you move it; wet books are very fragile. Remember: the wetter the book, the heavier it is and the more likely to be damaged by rough handling.

The best way to dry books is with cool, dry, circulating air. Never dry them by using an oven, microwave, hair dryer or iron. If the volume is very wet, place it flat on a clean table or bench that is covered with absorbent material. Carefully place sheets of absorbent material (paper towels, blotters or uninked newsprint) between sections of pages. Don't distort the binding, though. Change the sheets as they become wet. To speed drying, change the location of the blotters each time they are replaced. With books that have coated pages, use waxed paper between pages.

If the volume is damp or only partially wet, stand it upright on its driest edge with its pages fanned open. If you are using fans to keep the air circulating, make sure the spines or covers are facing the breeze. If needed, insert blotting materials between pages. Once the book is dry but feels cool to the touch, close it and place it on its side with a slight weight on it. Check regularly for mold growth. You can also freeze the books to be defrosted and dried later, when conditions improve.

More tips are available through the FEMA Web site at www.fema.gov, and through www.heritageemergency.org, and the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension publications on Care of Quilts -Cleaning (NF02-525), Conservation of Textiles Items (NF93-137), Preservation of Paper Items (NF93-138) available through the local Extension Offices or on the web

Professional conservators may be contacted through the free Conservation Services Referral System of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works at (202) 452-9545.

Local and area professional photographers, museum personnel and librarians may be able to offer more tips.

Sources: Shirley Niemeyer, Extension Specialist, Housing & Environment, University of Nebraska-Lincoln FEMA and the Heritage Emergency National Task Force, a coalition of 34 national organizations and federal agencies.

University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension in Lancaster County
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