Tips for Salvaging Flood Damaged Photos, Papers, and Books

What to Do When Important Pictures and Documents Get Wet

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 but the loss of precious family photographs, scrapbooks, and memorabilia can be devastating. While it may seem as if there's nothing to be done when faced with piles of soggy, mud-spattered documents, pictures, and other paper items, saving at least some of them may be possible if you follow a few simple steps.

How to Save Water-Damaged Photos

Most printed photographs, photographic 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 them from water-logged albums and separate any that are stuck 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 filled with clear, cold water. Do not rub the photos, and change the water frequently.
  3. Time is of the essence, so as soon as you can arrange adequate space, 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 indoors if possible, as sun and wind will cause them to curl more quickly.
  4. If you don't have time to dry your damaged photos right away, rinse them to remove any mud and debris. Carefully stack the wet photos between sheets of wax paper and seal them in a zipper-type plastic bag. If possible, freeze the photos to inhibit damage. This way, photos can be defrosted, separated, and air-dried 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 less likely 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.

    Note: 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 quickly as possible, before mold sets in.

    The simplest approach to salvaging water-damaged papers and books is to lay the damp items on blotting paper to absorb moisture. Paper towels are a good option, as long as you stick to the plain white ones without the fancy prints. Avoid using newsprint since the 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, put them in piles to dry out a bit before attempting to separate them. If space is a problem, you can string fishing line across a room and use it as you would a clothesline.
    4. Put an oscillating fan in the room where you are drying your papers to increase air circulation and speed the process.
    5. For water-logged books, the best option is to place absorbent paper between the wet pages (this is called "interleaving") and then 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 increased humidity is enough to trigger the growth of mold. It's important to remove books and papers from a wet location as soon as possible and move them to a location with fans and/or dehumidifiers 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 your important papers or photos have developed mold and must be discarded, have them copied or digitally scanned before throwing them out.