Tips for Salvaging Flood & Water Damaged Photos

Flood damaged Bible and photographs. Photo: Getty Images/David Ryder/Stringer
David Ryder/Getty Images News/Getty Images

When disasters hit, most people don't mourn the refrigerator or the couch. Instead, the loss of precious family photographs, scrapbooks and memorabilia are what brings them to tears. While it may seem unlikely when facing piles of soggy, mud-spattered photos, papers and other valuables, saving them may be possible by following a few simple steps.

How to Save Water-Damaged Photos

Most photographs, negatives and color slides can be cleaned and air-dried using the following steps:

  1. Carefully lift the photos from the mud and dirty water. Remove photos from water-logged albums and separate any that are stacked together, being careful not to rub or touch the wet emulsion of the photo surface.
  2. Gently rinse both sides of the photo in a bucket or sink of clear, cold water. Don't rub the photos, and change the water frequently.
  3. If you have time and space right away, lay each wet photo face up on any clean blotting paper, such as a paper towel. Don't use newspapers or printed paper towels, as the ink may transfer to your wet photos. Change the blotting paper every hour or two until the photos dry. Try to dry the photos inside if possible, as sun and wind will cause photos to curl more quickly.
  4. If you don't have time right away to dry your damaged photos, just rinse them to remove any mud and debris. Carefully stack the wet photos between sheets of wax paper and seal them in a Ziploc type plastic bag. If possible, freeze the photos to inhibit damage. This way photos can be defrosted, separated and air-dried later when you have the time to do it properly.

    More Tips for Handling Water Damaged Photographs

    • Try to get to flood-damaged photos within two days or they will begin to mold or stick together, making it much more unlikely they can be salvaged.
    • Begin with photographs for which there are no negatives, or for which the negatives are also water damaged.
    • Pictures in frames need to be saved when they are still soaking wet, otherwise, the photo surface will stick to the glass as it dries and you will not be able to separate them without damaging the photo emulsion. To remove a wet photo from a picture frame, keep the glass and photo together. Holding both, rinse with clear flowing water, using the water stream to gently separate the photo from the glass.

    Some historical photographs are very sensitive to water damage and may not be recoverable. Older or valuable photographs should not be frozen without first consulting a professional conservator. You may also want to send any damaged heirloom photos to a professional photo restorer after drying.

    Other Paperwork

    Marriage licenses, birth certificates, favorite books, letters, old tax returns and other paper-based items can usually be saved after a drenching. The key is to remove the dampness as soon as possible, before mold sets in.

    The simplest approach to salvaging water-damaged papers and books is to lay the damp items on blotter paper, which will absorb moisture. Paper towels are a good option, as long as you stick to the plain white ones without the fancy prints. Newspaper should also be avoided because its ink may run.

    How to Save Water-Damaged Papers & Books

    As with photos, most papers, documents, and books can be cleaned and air-dried using the following steps:

    1. Carefully remove the papers from the water.
    2. If the damage is from dirty flood water, gently rinse the papers in a bucket or sink of clear, cold water. If they are especially fragile, try laying the papers on a flat surface and rinsing with a gentle spray of water.
    3. Lay the papers individually on a flat surface, out of direct sunlight. If the papers are soggy, lay them in piles to dry out a bit before attempting to separate them. If space is a problem, try stringing fishing line across the room and use it like a clothesline.
    4. Put an oscillating fan in the room where your papers are drying to increase air circulation and speed drying.
    5. For water-logged books, the best option is to place absorbent paper between the wet pages - "interleaving," and lay the books flat to dry. You don't have to place blotter paper between every page, just every 20-50 pages or so. Change the blotting paper every few hours.
    6. If you have wet papers or books that you just can't deal with right away, seal them in plastic zipper bags and stick them in the freezer. This helps to stop the deterioration of the paper and prevents mold from setting in.

      When cleaning up after a flood or water leak, remember that books and papers don't have to be directly in the water to suffer damage. The extra humidity from all of the water in the vicinity is enough to trigger the growth of mold. It is important to remove these books and papers from the wet location as soon as possible, moving them to a location with fans to speed air circulation and lower humidity.

      After your papers and books are completely dry, they may still suffer from a residual musty smell. To combat this, place the papers in a cool, dry place for a couple of days. If the musty smell still lingers, put the books or papers in an open box and put that inside a larger, closed container with an open box of baking soda to absorb odors. Be careful not to let the baking soda touch the books, and check the box daily for mold.

      If you have important papers or photos that develop mold, have them copied or digitally scanned before throwing them out.