Conserving Documents After a Flood: Act Quickly

University of Wisconsin-Superior flood damage from June 2012

Damaged books from June 2012 flood at University of Wisconsin-Superior. [Photo courtesy University of Wisconsin-Superior] 

In the immediate aftermath of a fire or flood, recovering possessions may at first seem impossible. But according to conservation experts Karen Pavelka and Rebecca Elder at the university's School of Information, all hope is not lost.

Pavelka and Elder worked with victims of the 2011 Bastrop wildfires to help them save personal items damaged during the disaster. The key is to act quickly, stabilizing documents and hard drives so they may be assessed by experts.

"When faced with a major disaster, people's emotions sometimes make the situation seem worse than it actually is," Pavelka said.

In a disaster simulation exercise hosted last fall by the American Red Cross of Central Texas, the scholars and their students shared conservation tips with volunteers from the Red Cross and other organizations:

  1. Don't throw things away just because they are damaged. Stabilize the items and get them to someone who can assess their condition. Chances are more can be saved than you realize.
  2. After flooding, information on computers may be salvageable if the hard drive is intact. Make sure to dry it out completely then take it to a computer professional to see if information can be retrieved from the hard drive. Additionally, salvage is potentially possible even in cases of excessive physical force or fire.
  3. Mold may start growing on your damp documents within 48 to 72 hours. To stabilize a lot of wet documents or books until you have time to deal with each one, clear space in your freezer. Wrap the damp documents in freezer paper and put them in an airtight freezer bag, then place the package in a stable position (with room for the water to expand but tight enough for it to be secure) and freeze until you can come back to it.
  4. To dry out water-soaked books, place a paper towel between each section where the book naturally falls open. If the book is dry enough, you can gently stand the book on its end and fan the pages open so it will air dry. If the book is fairly wet, lay it on a flat surface under a heavy object (such as a brick or a dictionary wrapped in freezer paper so it will not stick to the cover). Make sure to replace the paper towels between the pages as soon as they are completely wet until the book is dry.
  5. To treat wet photographs, lay blotter paper (found in art stores) or paper towels on a flat surface and arrange photos image side up, making sure they don't overlap, to let them air dry.

"Many clients seemed intrigued by the wet and damaged items displayed," said a student who helped demonstrate the conservation techniques. "One person watching said, 'I wish I had known about this two or three years ago when my mom's town was hit by a flood. Then we could have saved some of her stuff.' "

"It is always gratifying to see that what we think of as small tasks can have a large impact on another person," Pavelka said. "I was happy to offer my expertise in this exercise."

students from UT

Students from UT's School of Information share document conservation techniques at a disaster simulation exercise hosted by the American Red Cross of Central Texas last fall.