Preparedness & Recovery

A Link to Normalization: Protecting Valuables During a Disaster Can Speed Recovery

There are ways to protect family heirlooms and other valuables, even after the fact.

by Jim McKay / July 6, 2017
FEMA/ Christopher Mardorf

As those in emergency management know, it’s difficult to get people to prepare for a disaster — and that includes taking steps to protect keepsakes. But there are ways to protect valuables and even save them after the fact, and there are organizations to help.

In 1995, FEMA and the Smithsonian Institution co-sponsored the Heritage Emergency Task Force to help protect the nation’s cultural heritage. The task force consists of 42 federal agencies and national service organizations that focus on efforts to educate libraries, museums, and archives on how to save cultural items before and after a disaster.

Individuals can benefit from some of the knowledge as well to protect their family heirlooms and other keepsakes.

And things do matter.

“It matters because saving the things that matter to us helps disaster survivors literally pick up the pieces of their lives and move forward,” said Lori Foley, administrator of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force. “Those objects root us in our past. And for disaster survivors, they help anchor us and reassure us in a time that is fraught with stress and turmoil and can help pull our lives together and begin that recovery process a little at a time.”

Americans tend to have the “it won’t happen to me” syndrome, and that often keeps them from preparing. But there are some very simple things that can be done to save keepsakes before and even after disaster strikes.

Having physical or digital copies of important documents, such as automobile and tax records, wills, passwords, bank and credit card info that can go in an emergency go-kit can help. Larger materials can be stored at the highest point of a residence, preferably in a waterproof plastic tub with a lid. Things like quilts, framed photos, etc., can be saved in such storage.

And after the fact, it’s not always too late to save certain items. Books and documents that get saturated can be washed off with clear, clean water and frozen. That buys time and preserves the document while also allowing it to dry in the freezer.

“You can freeze many items that you can’t get around to drying within 48 hours,” Foley said. “You can freeze books, documents, photographs and textiles. Freezing stops the mold from growing and stops ink from running. It stops dyes in textiles from transferring and books from swelling.”
There are some exceptions to freezing. Metal items shouldn’t be frozen and certain older photos shouldn’t be frozen. You can consult an expert if uncertain.

There is a network of regional conservation and preservation centers called the Regional Alliance for Preservation. There is the Emergency Response and Salvage app, which can provide advice and is available free through Apple, Android and BlackBerry devices. The American Institute for Conservation can help locate a conservator.

“You can locate a conservator both by location and type of material, whether it’s leather, or metal or rawhide,” Foley said.

Experts can help you navigate these issues while staying safe, which is a big part of the equation as well. But the two main points, according to Foley:

“You don’t necessarily have to throw things away,” she said. “It’s far easier and less stressful if you take steps now to protect your possessions.”