BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD)— During the flood of 2016, many Louisianians lived through a nightmare. 

An estimated 146,000 homes were damaged and thousands of locals had no choice but to flee to one of Louisiana’s 11,000 state-operated shelters. 

When the floodwaters seeped into homes, they destroyed cherished memories. Photos of weddings, family gatherings, and other momentous events were damaged beyond repair.

Hopefully, residents won’t have to live through a similar natural disaster any time soon.

But it doesn’t hurt to be prepared, and experts say there are ways to think ahead and protect photographs from being destroyed by floodwaters.


Protect old photos by going digital

There’s always the option of going digital by scanning and then uploading old photographs onto an online cloud storage system. This keeps your photos safe in the online realm where floodwaters can’t reach them. 

You can also scan your old photographs and then email them to yourself. This way, if you ever want to move the photos to a different digital location or print them out, all you have to do is search for them in your email account.

Keeping physical photographs protected

In a recent article on LSU’s website,  LSU Archival Expert Ed Benoit had a different set of suggestions for those who prefer not to go digital while attempting to preserve their cherished memories. 

Benoit told LSU, “It is more important to keep items clean and dry to prevent immediate mold growth. Preparation and prevention are key. When at all possible, you should store documents in acid-free folders and boxes prior to a natural disaster. With photographs, avoid (at all costs) sticky albums or gluing things to a page. If you have framed photographs, use a matte between the frame and the photograph to prevent the photo from sticking to the glass.”

Click here to read Benoit’s full interview with LSU.

Reviving flood-damaged photos

It may also be possible to resurrect some photos that have been damaged in floods, but time and patience are needed.

According to the National Park Service, the following questions should be considered before taking on the task:

  • What is the photo condition? Separate any dry, undamaged photographs and move them to a safe, dry place.
  • Can you reprint the photograph from an electronic version, or are there undamaged negatives that can be used to replace the photograph? If so, reprint the photo and discard the wet photo.
  • Is the photograph irreplaceable? Is it valuable or an heirloom photo that holds special meaning to you? If so, you will need to take action within 48 hours. Some photographs will quickly deteriorate when wet, and mold can begin to grow within 48 hours. If you cannot treat these photographs within 48 hours, you may consider freezing the photographs. Do not freeze older or valuable photos without first consulting a professional conservator.
  • Are the photographs loose, in photo albums or a frame? The image surface of a wet photograph, called the emulsion, may want to stick to itself, the album page or the frame. Remove all photographs from frames, album pages, and sleeves where adhesion is not a problem. If a valuable photos are stuck together or stuck to the glass of the frame, do not pull them apart; consult a professional conservator.
  • Treat the least stable photographs first. Start with wet color prints since they are more susceptible to water damage. Next, move to black and white prints which tend to be more stable. Finally, treat negatives and transparencies.

When working with flood-damaged photos, safety measures are key. These include:

  • Using personal protective equipment such as a long-sleeved smock or shirt and gloves, eye protection, as well as a N95 respirator.
  • Containing contaminated water and spores by covering your work table with plastic, like a drop cloth or a disposable plastic table cloth, topped with unprinted newsprint paper to absorb excess water.

The restoration process is as follows:

Step One

Gather the following materials:

  • Smock
  • Gloves
  • N95 Respirator (in case of mold)
  • Eye protection
  • Fans
  • Clean water
  • Trays or tubs
  • Paper towels
  • Clothespins
  • Plastic table cover
  • Newsprint
  • Plastic spatula (in case photos are sticking together)

Step Two

Prepare your work area by placing all contaminated pictures in your work space next to your rinsing station.

Step Three

Continue the work station set up by creating a rinsing station made up of two tubs of distilled water.

Step Four 

To conclude the setup of your workstation, make sure you have enough space to lay photos flat to dry. If adequate space is unavailable, string a clothesline in your workspace.

Step Five

Work with one photograph at a time in the rinsing station. Most importantly, do not touch the image surface of a wet photo until it is dry. Cradle the photo from beneath in the palm of your hands. Rinse the photograph by gently lowering the photo into the clean water of the first tray and rocking the photo back and forth slowly in the water. Move the photograph to the second tray and repeat the rinse.

Step Six

Establish an open drying space outdoors in the shade or in a room with a dehumidifier.

Lay photographs flat on clean blotter paper, paper towels, or clean cloth towels. Make sure the emulsion (the side with the image) is facing up. 

Circulate the air with fans to speed up drying time and minimize molding.

If you are limited in space, hang the photographs on a clothesline. Make sure that the clothes pins you use touch only the edge of the photos. Space photographs far enough apart so that they won’t flap or stick to each other while drying.

The photographs may warp or distort, and some stains may be left behind. The pictures may be flattened later, once they have dried, by placing them under a heavy weight for several days.

Click here to view the steps above alongside instructional pictures on the National Park Services’ website. 

Treasured memories that have been captured on camera don’t have to be destroyed by flood waters. Protecting them now by either going digital or by following the suggestions provided by Archival Expert Ed Benoit can ensure that your photos are around for years to come.