After a Flood | Recovery of Important Documents

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This article was written by Fielding Freed, Historic Columbia director of historic house museums, after the 1000-year flood in South Carolina almost two years ago. With the devastation in Houston and the impending arrival of Irma, we think it is very relevant today.

Every time a hurricane approaches the South Carolina coast, residents are reminded to put important papers in a readily accessible, waterproof box to make it easier to grab on the way out the door during an evacuation. Most Columbians who were victims of the recent flood did not have that luxury. For those whose irreplaceable family papers, photographs and artworks were waterlogged, there is a limited amount of time for successful recovery. Even though we are more than two weeks after the flood, if you have waterlogged papers, photographs, or artwork that have not been cared for yet there are a few things you can still do:

  • Freezing can buy you more time. A freezer with a “frost-free” setting can, over months, dry out items (“freeze-drying”), which can be preferable to air drying.
  • If a stack of family photos are stuck together, you can use distilled water to re-wet them then slowly ease them apart for air drying. Soak them in the water if needed.
  • Mold and mildew can be removed if it has already begun to bloom, but do not use chemical cleaners. Mild soap and water will work.
  • Avoid drying wet things in direct sunlight if possible.
  • Use paper towels to blot off excess water. Newspapers can rub ink onto other paper.
  • Un-frame works of art or photos behind glass if wet.
  • Many water-damaged items can be repaired or conserved—do not be too hasty in throwing them away.

One way to think about the situation is that the photographs and papers contain information that we want to preserve. Sometimes we just cannot save the originals. So, even if your family photos or papers were badly damaged, you can still take a digital photo of them which can be digitally corrected and printed later. You can then dispose of the originals, especially if they become a health hazard. No matter where we live in South Carolina, having those important family papers and photographs duplicated electronically and stored safely before a natural disaster is a lesson we can all learn from the floods caused by Hurricane Joaquin.

Beth Bilderback, Visual Materials Archivist at USC’s South Caroliniana Library, assists David Fulmer with dozens of flood water damages renderings drawn by his late father, preservation architect William Fulmer. The South Carolina Chapter of the American Institute of Architects sponsored the salvage of the collection.

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