Genius Ideas for Disaster-Proofing Heirlooms and Mementos in Your Home


Karen Baker will never forget September 26, 2015. Like a lot of moms, she was spending her Saturday shopping for back-to-school clothes for her two kids, when her cell phone rang. A neighbor was calling. "Get home now," she told Karen. “Your house is on fire."

Air might be your best friend after water damage

Because mold forms so quickly, the sooner you can safely gain access to a flooded home, the better. Immediately open doors and windows to get air circulating through the home. "If possible, spread out your valuables, bring in dehumidifiers and fans, and keep the temperature low by turning the heat down or using air conditioners," says Bernier, who notes you will need a generator to run these appliances if electricity in your area has not been restored.

Don't stack  —  fan out books and papers

Soaked documents and books will probably develop water stains, but you can avoid further damage by fanning them on a table to dry. Lay papers flat; fan out the pages of books and set them upright. "When the book no longer feels damp, place it flat with weight on top to minimize warping," advises Bernier, who notes this technique does not work on books with glossy pages, which may require professional restoration. One resource Bernier recommends is the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), a membership organization for professional conservators, which has an extensive list of members by region.

Never blot artwork

Do not attempt to blot dry a wet work of art, as this could damage the surface. Instead, lay it flat and let it air dry. Try to get four to eight inches of space underneath the artwork using blocks, and direct fans away from the surface. Also, don't panic if the piece has been submerged in water. AIC's Smith once recovered paintings from the walls of a room in Marfa, Texas, that had been flooded to the ceiling. "Once dry, the paintings, which were soggy, dried out nicely and required no additional work," she says.

Storage matters

Avoid storing photos and important documents in basements or attics, where conditions can speed chemical deterioration.

If you can't air-dry wet photos, put them in the freezer

Wet photos should be dried face up, with nothing stacked on top. Because this process requires an enormous amount of room, Bernier shares another option if you can't air-dry wet photos or find adequate space: freeze wet photos until you have time or space to deal with them. Individual photos can be placed in zip-top plastic bags; if you have entire boxes and albums that are wet, secure them in plastic wrap and tape any seams. When you're ready to dry the photos, defrost them in the plastic to keep them damp, then gently separate with clean fingers. For tricky separations, slip a butter knife between photos. 

If your photos have dried and stuck together or are stuck to pages in a photo album, do not try to pull them apart. Bernier recommends contacting a conservator, who may be able to re-humidify or submerge them in water to separate them.

Air-dry antique furniture, wooden surfaces and jewelry 

Often, in the wake of a disaster, a homeowner's first instinct might be to wipe down wet furniture, wooden floors, and metal objects or surfaces with a towel or mop after a flood or water damage. But disturbing wet surfaces can damage the varnish and cause scratches. "The least amount of physical contact, the better," says Smith. 

Furniture should be air-dried, slowly and out of the sun, to help avoid warping, Smith says. Remove the drawers and items inside drawers to facilitate drying. Only attempt cleaning once the object is dry. "Using a vacuum with a HEPA filter and a soft brush to guide the dirt and debris into the nozzle," says Smith. "Avoid using vacuum attachments because they're too rough." 

Anything metal and exposed to fresh water should be air-dried and taken to a professional cleaner or conservator, says Smith. Saltwater can corrode metal objects exposed to air, so items that have been soaking in a storm surge should be kept submerged, if possible. "Keep it wet until a conservator can desalinate it," says Smith. 

Because of particulates and toxicity, Bernier says valuable fire-damaged objects should be handled by professionals. If you decide to DIY, Bernier warns against water or cleaning solutions, which can push soot deeper into the object. Instead, she recommends using specialty soot sponges, which are inexpensive and available online. "Cut them into roughly two-inch cubes so they are easier to handle and can pick up more soot," she advises.

Genius Ideas for Disaster-Proofing Heirlooms and Mementos in Your Home