By Erin Doane, Curator
With enough money and resources, nearly anything damaged in a flood can be cleaned and restored. But no one, not even museums, has unlimited funding. That doesn’t mean that if your home is flooded that you have to throw everything away that you can’t afford to have professionally treated; nor would you want to. We collect many things in our lives that have great sentimental and historical value. Many of these things can be dried and saved by you at home without too much expense.
There are many good resources online for dealing with flood-damaged objects. Heritage Preservation (HP) has posted tips online and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has consulted with the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property (NIC) for recommendations on water-damaged belongings. My personal favorite resources come in the form of Conserve O Grams created by the National Park Service that offer advice on how to treat specific types of objects by material.
The following basic information is a combination of expert advice from these sources, some personal knowledge and a dose of common sense. Every item is different so these general guidelines may not work for everything. Thoughtful consideration should be done before treatment so more damage is not done to the object.
You should try to dry out solid wood furniture within 24 hours. Any longer and mold growth will begin and make it harder to save the piece. Remove all the drawers and open up the doors of the piece of furniture. Blot the water from all surfaces with clean cotton cloths or paper towels. Do not rub because flood waters can contain dirt and mud that will scratch the surface. Allow the furniture to slowly air-dry indoors. Rapid drying can cause warping and cracking. Remove moisture from the room with fans but don’t point fan airflow directly at the furniture.
It may be possible to salvage some upholstered furniture but a professional should be hired for the task. Mold growth is hard to stop and contaminants are nearly impossible to eliminate at home so it is better to leave the care of your antique Belter armchair to a professional.
Clothing and Textiles
Most personal textiles are everyday clothing and bedding that can simply be machine washed and dried if you decide to salvage them. For heirloom items, though, like great Aunt Sara’s quilt or grandma’s wedding gown, careful treatment is needed. Wet textiles can be very fragile and heavy so be cautious when moving them. They should be dried within 48 hours, especially during warmer weather to prevent mold growth. Anything that cannot be treated in that time frame can be frozen then thawed later in small batches when you have time to dry them. Items with dyes that won’t run should be rinsed as soon as possible then laid flat to air-dry indoors. Do not wring or twist the items. Blot them with clean, lint free towels and keep the air circulating to help them dry. Leather items should be treated within 24 hours. They can be air-dried but require special care to keep them flexible so it is best to seek professional help.
Most of our kitchens are filled with glass and ceramic cups and dishes, metal pots and pans and flatware and other utensils made of metal and plastic that can all be simply washed clean and left to air-dry. Kitchen gadgets like blenders and coffee makers, once soaked in flood waters are usually not salvageable.
Most electronics cannot survive a flood. Unless it’s your great grandfather’s radio that he used at the Battle of the Bulge, let it go.
Other Decorative Items Around the House
Air-drying as soon as possible is recommended for most items you find on the shelves and tables around the house. Things like wicker baskets or items with shell or bone should be treated within 24 hours. They should be wrapped in absorbent towels and air-dried with fans pushing the moist air out of the room. Baskets, especially, should be handled with care because they will be very fragile. On the other hand, ceramic statuary, other high-fired ceramics, and glass items are fairly stable even when soaking wet so they can be dried after more fragile items. Terracotta items, however, are very fragile when wet and should be treated quickly and with care. Bronze trophies, brass plaques, and the like can usually wait up to 48 hours to be dried unless they are corroded. The longer they are wet the worse the corrosion will get. If the item is mounted on wood, it should be dried sooner. As with most other items, blot with absorbent towels and air-dry.
Photographs, Books and Documents
Paper-based items are a whole different subject. Check out "Drowning Memories" by our archivist Rachel Dworkin for tips on how to treat those items.
Every object is different and will need to be considered individually but these tips and other available guidelines should help you salvage a family heirloom or two in case disaster strikes and you don’t have the resources for professional treatment.