Monday, August 19th, 2019 by Mary H.J. Farrell, Consumer Reports, Inc.
Heavy rain and severe weather can upend your life. And if you're faced with mucking out your house and tearing out saturated drywall, recovering keepsakes and family treasures might seem like a task for a later day.
But saving your valuables can be a race against the clock—mold can form within 48 hours. To help, the Heritage Emergency National Task Force, cosponsored by FEMA and the Smithsonian Institution, has developed guidelines for how to salvage what you want and dispose of what can’t be saved.
The first step is to determine what type of water you’re dealing with—salty, dirty, or contaminated by sewage or chemicals. If your valuables have come in contact with toxic water during flooding, you might have to call a professional conservator because trying to clean them yourself can be a health risk. If the water was untainted, then take steps to reduce the humidity around your items as you work to clean and dry them. Here’s how from FEMA’s checklist:
Prioritize. You may not be able to save everything after flooding, so focus on what’s most important to you, whether for sentimental or monetary reasons.
"We always hear about dollar-amount damages, but often the losses that affect us the most are the ones to which a dollar amount cannot be assigned," says Lori Foley, administrator of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force. "What do you own that you’d miss terribly if you lost it? Photographs of loved ones in frames, albums, or shoeboxes? Books and paintings passed down through generations? Grandma’s recipe box?"
Air-dry. Gentle air-drying indoors is best. Weather permitting, open your windows to increase indoor airflow. If it’s too hot and humid, use fans, air conditioners, and dehumidifiers. Avoid using hair dryers, irons, ovens, and prolonged exposure to sunlight, which can do irreversible damage.
Handle with care. Delicate items can be especially fragile when wet, so be careful when you handle them. Separate sodden materials by removing photographs from damp albums and taking paintings and prints out of their frames. Place white paper towels between every few pages of wet books.
Clean gently. Loosen dirt and debris on fragile objects carefully with soft cloths and brushes. Avoid rubbing, which can grind in dirt.
Salvage photos. Clean photographs by rinsing them carefully in clean water. Air-dry photos on a plastic screen or paper towel, or by hanging them by the corners with plastic clothespins. Don’t let the image come into contact with other surfaces as it dries.
Cold storage. Damp objects and items that cannot be dealt with immediately should be put in open, unsealed boxes or bags. If you can’t attend to items within 48 hours, you can put photos, papers, books, and textiles in the freezer and clean them later.
"In general, you can freeze many items that cannot be dried out in 48 hours – photos, books, documents, textiles," says Foley. "Freezing stops mold from growing, ink from running, and dyes from transferring. Freezing items allows you to buy some time to devote to other activities. When you are able, you can return to the frozen items and recover them on your own time."
For more information, learn how to save family photos and records.
Once the waters recede, residents will be able to go back into their homes and start cleaning up, and piles of ruined household belongings will be put on the curb. Cleanup can take months if not years.
Because mold creates a serious health risk, it’s important to remove wet items from your home as soon as possible. FEMA recommends not waiting for your insurance adjuster before cleaning up. Instead, document the flooding damage on your cell phone or camera. Before dragging debris to the curb, check with your municipality on how it wants you to separate items for the garbage haulers. FEMA recommends sorting items into the following six categories:
For more information and resources, see FEMA’s After the Flood: Advice for Salvaging Damaged Family Treasures.