What do I do with the wet photos that I found?

There’s been a disaster in your area. A tornado has blown apart homes and businesses or a flood has swept away people’s precious belongings or water-logged them in corners of their homes. Any of several other types of disasters can result in similar damage and loss.

Can their lost photos be saved? They may be still on their property or they could be miles away scattered by wind or water. What if you find a photo dropped out of the sky or washed up in flood water? Is there any hope of, first, saving the photo, and second, returning it to its owner?

YES! If you come across these items, or if you have your own damaged photos or documents in your home, do not throw them away! They can usually be saved, dried, cleaned and even professionally restored, if needed.

But you need to take action quickly. Here is what we at National Disaster Photo Rescue, along with heritage preservation organizations, recommend for salvaging wet, damaged photos.

rubber glovesStep 1: Keep safety in mind! If you are searching through debris for photos, be sure to wear rubber gloves (like they use in a hospital), possibly under leather work gloves if there is debris, and wear a FEMA-approved mask to prevent breathing in toxic substances such as mold.

Step 2: Have a plan. Its simple to deal with 1 or even a dozen wet photos. But what if you wind up finding hundreds of them? Where will you dry them? What will you do with them?

Step 3: When you are picking up photos, just put them into a trash bag or grocery bag until you can clean them. Don’t leave them in there for long though!

Step 4: If photos are wet AND very muddy, rinse them off in a bucket or sink of clear, plain water, but not under running water. You will need to change the water when it gets too dirty. Do NOT scrub them. Just shake them gently in the water to get the excess mud off. (We will show you what to do with the dry mud in a later step.)

Step 5: Wet photos need to be dried immediately, or frozen until later. If you need to freeze them, stack them loosely, possibly with wax paper in between, and put them in a zip lock bag. Store in the freezer until you can turn them over to someone, like a National Disaster Photo Rescue representative, or until you have time and space to air dry them.

Step 6: The best way to air dry photos is to lay them out flat, photo-side up, not touching any other photos. Be sure you do this on a clean hard surface that won’t be damaged or create more damage to the photos. Spread them out on wax paper, plain paper towels or plain (unprinted) newsprint paper. Do not spread them on printed newsprint or printed paper towels, because the ink can transfer. Leave them to dry for a few days. A fan and/or dehumidifier running in the room to circulate air, but not blowing directly on the photos, will help speed the process. Make sure photos are not in direct sunlight as they dry.

Step 7: Once photos are completely dry, they can be cleaned of any remaining mud or gunk by gently brushing them with used dryer sheets. As you do laundry, save your dryer sheets and when you have a few ready, use them until they look dirty. Laying the photos on a clean, dry dust-catching towel as you clean them will cut down on the dust. Be sure to wear some of those doctor-style plastic gloves and wear a dust mask while you clean the photos. (If there is a National Disaster Photo Rescue operation in your area, we suggest turning them over to our trained volunteers to handle the dirty work.)

Step 8: Clean, dry photos are ready to be put into new photo frames or returned to find their rightful owners. If National Disaster Photo Rescue is running a rescue project in the area, please turn them over to the local representative for return. Otherwise, you can scan them or take a picture of them and post it to Facebook to find the owner.

Step 9: Prevent the devestating loss of your memories in a future disaster. Scan and safely archive your photos today! Find someone with a high-speed scanner that can turn an otherwise month-long task into a task that takes a couple of hours. Or watch for a Save Your Photos Day in your area!

Do you want to volunteer with NDPR and help salvage and return photos lost in a disaster? You’ll find the volunteer application here.

For more information on salvaging other precious documents from rain or flood water, we have found these resources for you:

“Returning Lost Memories Worth a Thousand Words”…

A vintage photo returned to the family that lost it in the 2011 Joplin tornadoMemories are “the ability of the mind to store and recall past sensations, thoughts, knowledge”-Collins Dictionary.

How can you put a value on such a personal emotion? National Disaster Photo Rescue (NDPR) believes the value is priceless. For the past three years, National Disaster Photo Rescue has been reconnecting the memories of life directly back to those affected in natural disasters. We have walked the journey with hundreds of families. Our volunteers and volunteer staff have been reconnecting lost family photographs with the families who have the memories, free of charge. These photographs, lost during natural disaster, are important documents of life.

It is amazing the stories we hear of how one reunited photograph brought joy and healing in a time of need.

Photographs are the connection to our past. They transcend a single sense. Photographs truly transport us into that moment. We feel the emotions, hear the sounds, smell the food. We re-experience life. NDPR experiences these senses and emotions along side families. Family ‘Reunification’ is what NDPR does and does well. Reunification would have never been possible without help.

NDPR could not claim success without so many to walk with us as we walked with families in need. Operation Photo Rescue (OPR) is a group that we are so grateful for. Take some time, especially if you are into photo restoration, to visit their website OperationPhotoRescue.org.

There are countless churches, municipalities, businesses and business leaders who have helped us and given us the opportunity to help others. Recently, we have found great friends within the Association of Professional Photo Organizers (APPO). As we build one success upon another we continue to build relationships in communities and organizations.

Currently we are engaged in ‘Lost Photo Projects’ in Baxter Springs , KS, also Quapaw, OK, as well as Mayflower/Vilonia, AR . There are no shortage of natural disasters, so we can always use help. If you would like to help us in your area in the event of a disaster please register on our website at NationalDisasterPhotoRescue.org. Monetary gifts are tax deductible.

We would love to hear from you. Please post a comment to spread the Good News that there is hope and there is hope through our God. Our continuing mission at National Disaster Photo Rescue is “returning lost memories worth a thousand words”.

Thad Beeler- NDPR Outreach Director
May 22, 2014