Preserve belongings affected by flooding

After the Nebraska flooding last month, many households were faced with the difficult task of salvaging whatever belongings could be found from the flood waters.

But there is a way to save items affected, collections care specialist Rebecca Kennedy said at a workshop at the University of Nebraska State Museum March 29.

Representatives from the Smithsonian Institution traveled around the state last weekend holding workshops to help those affected by the flooding, including Omaha and Fremont.

Kennedy worked as a preservation specialist for the Smithsonian for 11 years, creating the program demonstrated at the museum. She is the owner of Curae Collections Care, which provides help for disaster response for cultural heritage institutions.

As part of the demonstration, Kennedy went through several items in a mock “disaster bucket” that could be affected by flooding and showed how to go about protecting them with materials from hardware or grocery stores.

“It’s material that is not readily sought-after following a disaster, so it’s not competing with any life-saving supplies,” she said.

Before starting the process, personal safety is important, and Kennedy highly recommended using an N95 mask and nitrile gloves for protection against the water. 

Certain items, including photographs and paper, can be cleaned in three casserole trays full of water and will get cleaner with each rinse. Kennedy said it’s a good idea to rinse items using distilled water, as opposed to tap water.

“The reason we use distilled water is because, unlike drinking water, it doesn’t have any contaminants or chlorine or anything like that in it, which we don’t want to introduce to photographs or paper because we don’t want to add chemicals,” she said. “We want to keep it as pure as possible.”

Kennedy said items can be scooped from the water using plastic, not metal, porch screen. This can prevent any belongings from tearing and acts as a sieve for the water.

While it’s fine to wash photographs taken after the 1970s with distilled water, earlier photographs may run. To find out if it’s safe to wash, take a light-colored cloth and rub gently on a corner of the photo. If the coloring rubs off on the cloth, don’t attempt to wash it any further.

For drying, Kennedy said to create a clothesline for the photos, clipping the corners gently. She said creating a hammock with the porch screen is another good way to dry them.

If photos are stuck together, pulling them apart could cause more damage, Kennedy said to soak the photos for a day or so and roll them back and forth to see if they’ll come apart.

“It’s not hugely successful, but I can save about 50 to 60% of the photos this way,” she said. “And a lot of conservators will tell you not to do this, but if you’re already at a loss for losing all your photos, what do you have to lose? You might as well give it a try.”

For photo albums, the photos will stick to the plastic holding them in. As a result, they should be cut out with a knife and gently rolled back. If they still stick, the photo should be scanned and taken to a conservator, Kennedy said.

With books, Kennedy recommended freezing them first by either wrapping them in freezer paper or placing them in freezer bags, removing all the air inside. Although this won’t help the book, it does put it in stasis, she said.

“So, it doesn’t grow mold, it doesn’t get any wetter, it doesn’t get worse, but it buys you time until you are done taking care of yourself and your family and your humanitarian needs to deal with this later or to get it to a conservator,” Kennedy said.

When dealing with single pieces of paper, such as letters, they should be placed between absorbent materials after washing. After putting plexiglass and a heavy object on top, the absorbent material, such as towels or blotter paper, should be replaced every so often to flatten the paper.

“The great thing about using the blotter paper and all this material is it’s reusable,” Kennedy said. “Just dry it out and use it again. You only have to throw it out if it gets moldy.”

Kennedy said when preserving wood items affected by flooding, the hardest part is to keep its shape.

“It’s going to get disrupted by the water, but it’s going to get more distorted if you try to dry it too quickly,” she said. “Slow and steady drying is actually your friend.”

To keep the shape of wood objects, they should be slowly blotted with a microfiber rag. If rinsing is required, Kennedy said to spray with one part vinegar (Dawn dish detergent if the varnish is coming off) and 10 parts water before wiping it off immediately.

Wood items should also be kept out of the sun or heat when drying, and instead, be wrapped in a sheet that is changed every so often.

The blot drying method should also be used for metal items, Kennedy said, but a conservator should be called if tarnish starts to show. CDs and vinyl records can simply be left out to dry, but the record sleeves should be treated like paper.

For textile items like clothing or blankets, handling is especially important when washing them off, Kennedy said.

“You don’t want to grab it by its ends because, like paper, fabric gets really, really sensitive when it’s in water,” she said. “It will stretch out and will be irreversible to shrink back up.”

When carrying clothes to dry, they should be transported to a clothesline pipe to lift them up. Wringing the clothes should be avoided, and using a paint roller to push out the moisture is recommended. If colors start to bleed, Kennedy said laying a cheesecloth on top will catch some of the bleeding.

Bigger items like quilts can be placed on tarps on a downhill surface, such as a driveway, and hosed off. PVC pipe can be used to transport it, and it can be placed on the tarp to dry, turning every so often.

Cori Wegener, director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, said prioritization is key when saving items affected by the flooding.

“If there is a recliner from Nebraska Furniture Mart and it’s been completely underwater for three days, that’s going to go. That’s not going to your priorities,” she said. “Probably, your insurance is going to replace a lot of your belongings. So, really think about those irreplaceable things.”

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