How to recover photos after a flood

Stephanie Martinez tries to dry family pictures after flood water inundated her home after torrential rains caused widespread flooding during Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey on September 1, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Getty Images)

HOUSTON – Photos these days are often backed up on websites, social media and flash drives.

But what about family heirloom photos? Weddings, graduations and other life events that are only printed out in a photograph?

As people start cleaning up from the floods from Hurricane Harvey, there are a few things you can do to try and rescue photos that may have been soaked with water.

Sheila Ware, an amateur photographer who grew up in a family of photography lovers, remembers when Hurricane Ike hit in 2008.

Many of Ware's friends and family were left with damaged homes and photos.

"That's their lifelong memories," Ware said. "Once you lose pictures that are 50 years old, you are never going to see that again. You have photos to trigger memories, and when they are gone, they are gone."

While helping her family clean up after the floods, Ware's sister-in-law handed her a bag of wet photos and asked her if she could throw them away.

"She couldn't even look at the photos, she was so upset," Ware said. "So I decided to take them home and try and clean them up."

The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works said saving photos after water damage is possible. You just need to act as quickly as possible. 

How to save photos after flood waters

Damaged photographs for which there are no negatives should receive attention first. Handle wet photos carefully. The surfaces may be fragile.

If you can, freeze the photos immediately (the photos may be defrosted later, separated and air-dried).

If no freezer or refrigerator is available, gently remove dirt and debris by blowing it off or shaking the photo gently. Do not try to wipe it away, as this could cause the ink to smear, or you may scratch the surface of the photograph.

Put the photos face-up in a single layer on a clean surface. Do not put them in direct sunlight!

If you don't have room to lay out your photos in a single layer, you can try putting wax paper in between each photo.

Run a fan to circulate air over and around the items as they dry.

Don't worry if the photos curl as they dry. You can add weights to the tips of the photos to keep them down.

As the photos dry and images appear, take photos of the photographs. They may actually get worse as they dry, so you will at least have a photo image of the picture.

If the photo is stuck in a frame and you can't remove it, it may be possible to scan the frame/photo to create a new jpeg image. Sometimes, freezing the photo and frame helps safely remove the photo from the glass backing.

It may take two to three days for the photos to dry completely.

Ware used these methods on thousands of flood-damaged photos and was able to save about 300 of them.

She put the salvaged photos into new albums and took them back to her sister-in-law.

"They never thought they'd have those pictures at all," Ware said. "When I handed them the albums, they were just looking through and crying."

If you have extremely valuable photos, you can hire a photo conservator to help restore them.

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