Disaster Preparedness

Disaster Preparedness | There are four steps to a disaster planning process: prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. Most museums, libraries, and archives have disaster plans and you should too. | The Photo Detective

Many of us live in areas exposure to natural disasters such a hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes. While there is some predictability to weather fluctuations it is the unexpected events such as firs and floods that change our lives  

There are four steps to a disaster planning process: prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.  Most museums, libraries, and archives have disaster plans and you should too.


Prevention means storing your collection in an area of your home or in a facility that will limit certain types of damage.  In addition to looking for an area with stable temperature and humidity levels, store your family heirlooms and photographs away from water pipes, chemicals, and electrical wires. Accidents have a tendency to happen when we least expect them and that water pipe may end up bursting and flooding your collection. 


One of the best preparedness tips is to scan your pictures 1200 dpi tiff  at 100 % scale is the recommended format and always scan in color (even if it’s a black and white photo). Don’t forget to scan the front and back of each item.  Use file names/numbers with “back” or “reverse” for the flip-side of pictures so you won’t lose track of what goes with what.

Once you’ve created those digital files what do you do with them?  The files are your back-up in case something happens to the original, but you need to take steps to save those files too.  Try an online back-up service or a portable hard drive (store that device in another place).  You’re covered even if your computer crashes or gets destroyed. In the event that happens, you’ll still be able to restore your digital files either from your online service or from your extra hard drive.  Using a digital organizer like MemoryWeb provides you with another layer of protection.

Do you know whom to call if your photograph/heirloom collection is damaged?  Obviously in case of a disaster there will be other things that need attention first, but you’ll eventually get around to your collections. 

  • Note where the water, gas, and electrical shutoffs for your house are located. 
  • Jot down the phone number for your local fire department, police, conservation lab and names of friends who can help.  The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works has a referral database on their website.  Some conservation labs have a 24 hour emergency hotline. 
  • Keep an emergency kit of distilled water, blotting paper, and unprinted newsprint (available at art supply store), masks, medical examination gloves in a waterproof container. 
  • Keep a few waterproof containers on hand for short-term storage of photographs

Response and Recovery

So the inevitable happens and your photographs are wet and dirty, before you toss them contact a professional for advice and keep a disaster kit nearby with the following:

  • A de-humidifier can help dry out sodden pictures while fans help circulate the air. 
  • Don’t pull apart any photos that are stuck to each other.  Instead, freeze them to prevent mold growth until a conservator can save the images.  
  • Set up a drying area. Just because a photo is wet doesn’t mean it’s ruined. It depends on the type of photo and the length of time it was immersed
  • Was the water dirty or contaminated with chemicals?   Wear gloves and masks when handling materials to protect yourself from toxins.
  • Has mold started to grow on the materials
  • Were they wet more than 48 hours before you salvaged them. 
  • Rinse photos (not color) in distilled water and place them on the newsprint to dry. Negatives dry emulsion side up. 

A group called Operation Photo Rescue offers free photo restoration services to communities affected by flooding and storms. If you have digital restoration skills you may want to contact them.

Each type of photograph requires a special approach but these basic tips will at least get you ready for the next disaster.   There is more information on disaster plans in my book, Preserving Your Family Photographs and in my course Essential Photo Organizing

Are you prepared for the next natural disaster? Download my Disaster Preparedness Checklist here.