After a disaster like a tornado, earthquake, hurricane, fire, or flood, you first make sure that you and your loved ones are safe and secure. Once the immediate safety concerns are addressed, the next urgent tasks often center around finding undamaged household items and personal possessions and taking them to a safe, dry place. After relocation, the process of sorting what can be cleaned and saved — and what can’t — begins. This can be a traumatic part of the recovery and restoration process. To make it less painful, this guide offers you several different methods for saving possessions such as photos, books, and documents, as well as information on how to eliminate odors and clean furniture and other household items.
This guide primarily covers ways to address damage done by natural disasters that involve water and flooding, or fire and smoke. It is important to note that these types of disasters can happen anywhere and anytime. Even if you don’t live in a floodplain, a pipe can burst in your home and cause extensive water damage — and a fire can destroy any home. No matter where you live, your address does not negate these possibilities.
However, becoming aware of the natural disaster risks in your area can potentially help you if a disaster occurs. It’s important to know if your address is located in an area associated with disaster risks, such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, or blizzards.
Now that you have identified the risks of natural disasters for your area, consider how some basic home upgrades can save you money in the long run. By taking preventive measures, you can lessen the damage that occurs to your home and your valuables. Here are some basic home improvements all homeowners should consider that can prove helpful in most disasters:
Steps for Protecting Valuables Before a Disaster
Before a disaster strikes, you can take steps to protect your most important documents, keepsakes, and valuables. For example, documents such as birth certificates, passports, or deeds should be kept in a safe place that can withstand most elements. Similarly, some individuals opt to use these same means of safekeeping for valuable items or meaningful possessions, such as jewelry or family heirlooms. Here are a few of the ways you can store and protect important documents and valuables before a disaster happens:
- Fireproof safe. Homeowners can purchase a small fireproof safe that is designed to protect small items like documents and jewelry from fire or water. These fireproof safes can only be opened by a key or digital keypad.
- Photo storage. There are many ways to protect your family’s photos. The most effective way to save photos in a disaster is to digitize photos. This means you have copies of the pictures uploaded and stored with a cloud service on the internet. For old family photos, you can scan these photos and upload them to the cloud. If you cannot digitize photos, you can place originals in a fireproof safe or a bank safety security box. Finally, if you have loose photos, use photo storage containers and keep them on the higher floors of your home rather than in the basement.
- Safety security box. You can purchase a safety security box from your local bank to store important documents and valuables. The bank will only allow those people you have listed to access the box. Keep in mind that a safety security box is stored in the bank; therefore, it can only be accessed during bank hours.
- Emergency kit. The importance of building a family emergency kit cannot be stressed enough. In addition to the emergency supplies, your emergency kit is another place where you may consider storing valuables or papers you believe you cannot live without.
Lori Foley of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force explains in Smithsonian Magazine why it’s important to protect the things you love:
“People don't realize how meaningful their things are until they're gone. Even if nobody else would think that your favorite photo or ‘your grandma's gumbo recipe’ is significant, […] the things you love can help you heal and move forward. Take a moment to consider what possessions are most important to you, […] then think about how you'll save or salvage them in case of emergency. If at all possible, […] include the items in your emergency kit or close by so that you can grab them without having to think when emergency strikes.”
Prioritize What Matters
After a disaster strikes, you have a very limited amount of time to salvage your possessions. Consumer Reports explains, “Saving your valuables can be a race against the clock because mold can form within 48 hours.”
Therefore, it’s necessary to make tough decisions right from the start, to prioritize what matters. While people’s priorities are all different, it is important to stop and think about which matters the most to you: monetary value or sentimental value. Lori Foley suggested in Consumer Reports that homeowners consider the following:
“We always hear about dollar-amount damages, but often the losses that affect us the most are the ones to which a dollar amount cannot be assigned. What do you own that you’d miss terribly if you lost it? Photographs of loved ones in frames, albums, or shoeboxes? Books and paintings passed down through generations? Grandma’s recipe box?"
Keep in mind that it may not be possible to save everything. After a disaster, the priority will be salvaging the items that can be saved and letting go of the things that cannot.
Navigating the Immediate Aftermath of a Natural Disaster
As we already discussed, you are in a race against the clock to save your possessions after a disaster. What you are able to salvage and how you salvage it will depend greatly on the type of disaster and the degree of damage. Here are some basic steps to take the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster.
- Wait to re-enter. Do not try to go back into your home until it has been cleared for re-entry by officials.
- Be safe. Do not attempt to enter your home for valuables unless it is safe. FEMA advises that you rescue the most valuable items, but never attempt to salvage any belongings at the expense of your own safety.
- Air out your home. If possible, open doors, windows, and vents to air out your home for some time before entering. The danger of a gas leak or mold outbreak is real. If you smell gas, do not enter the premises; alert the gas company and warn others to stay away.
- Turn off electricity. If electric power is still connected, use caution when turning it off at the breaker box. Call your utility company if necessary.
- Contact your insurance company. While you’re initially assessing the damage, take photos and videos to document your losses. This will help the insurance company make its official assessment.
- Dress safely. Whether you’re dealing with water damage or fire damage, it is important to protect your skin, eyes, and respiratory system. Wear gloves, protective clothing, goggles, and face masks.
- Wash your hands. As you remove your damaged possessions, it is important to wash your hands frequently with soap or use hand sanitizer. Besides potentially endangering your health, mold spores and bacteria also can be transferred from one object to another and cause further damage.
- Begin removing possessions. This is the start of the salvage process. Remove your valuables and possessions from the home and transport them to a safe place.
- Discard badly damaged items. If something is a possession you hope can still be restored, hold on to it, but prioritize keeping the possessions that matter most.
- Save what you can for later. Damp objects and items that cannot be dealt with immediately should be put in open, unsealed boxes or bags. Photos, papers, books, and textiles should be frozen if you can’t get them dry within 48 hours, according to FEMA.
Since both floods and fires usually result in water damage (i.e., firefighters using water to extinguish flames), mold growth is the next thing you’ll have to worry about. FEMA explains that mold can form within 48 hours, so you will need to work fast. The goal is to reduce the humidity and temperature around your treasures as you proceed to clean and dry them.
Does Insurance Cover Possessions and Valuables?
After a disaster, you should contact your insurance provider immediately. Then you should document as much of the damage as possible. After some disasters, it will be necessary to begin salvaging possessions immediately rather than waiting for your insurance adjuster to arrive. This is why photo evidence is critical.
Depending on the type of insurance you have, your possessions and valuables may be covered after a disaster. For example, homeowner’s insurance generally provides coverage for the structure of your home as well as the personal belongings inside it.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, “Your furniture, clothes, sports equipment, and other personal items are covered if they are stolen or destroyed by fire, hurricane or other insured disasters. The coverage is generally 50 to 70 percent of the insurance you have on the structure of the house.”
However, there may be caps on the dollar amounts of reimbursement for expensive items like jewelry. If items like these are a consideration, you may want to consider adding a special personal property endorsement to your policy.
Furthermore, a standard homeowners policy will NOT cover flood or earthquake damage. Therefore, if you live in a flood zone or earthquake zone, it’s wise to consider purchasing additional insurance to protect your home and possessions in case these disasters occur.
Initial Cleanup Steps Following a Fire Event
A fire can cause catastrophic damage to your home and the possessions inside it. Even if the flames did not physically burn objects, the fire may have caused soot or smoke damage. However, once you begin salvaging, you may be surprised to learn that you can save more than you thought possible after a fire.
One of the first decisions you will need to make is whether you will attempt to clean up on your own or if you will hire a team of restoration professionals. Whether you plan to do it yourself or hire someone, there are some steps you’ll need to take in the immediate aftermath.
- Wait to re-enter. Do not attempt to go back into your home until fire officials declare it safe for re-entry.
- Be safe. Most cleaning materials are flammable, so it is critical not to begin cleaning if there are remaining sparks.
- Turn off the electricity. What Happens Now explains, “Be sure to have electrical power turned off and exposed wires secured by a qualified electrician before working around appliances or wet surfaces.”
- Open vents, doors, and windows. Your home needs to air out, and opening the vents, doors, and windows will help lingering smoke escape.
- Remove unharmed possessions. Take items that have not been burned in the fire to a safe place.
- Discard severely damaged items. If items are severely burnt, you will need to discard them.
- Dry wet items. Items that have been soaked with water by firefighting efforts will need to be dried out first. You can use dryers and humidifiers to speed up the process. (See further notes in the sections of this guide that deal with water damage.)
- Prevent corrosion.Remove metal hardware from furniture, clean it with kerosene, and coat with oil.
Homeowners will need to clean their furniture and possessions differently depending on the material each is made of. In the next sections, we will cover specific steps to take for salvaging common household possessions damaged by a fire.
Salvaging Upholstery After a Fire
Unfortunately, fire can destroy upholstery. However, light fire damage to your upholstered furniture may be able to be repaired. If an upholstered item has only sustained light damage, follow these steps in order to restore upholstery:
- Vacuum away soot. Use a hard attachment (not a brush attachment) to vacuum soot out of any furniture upholstery that is not removable.
- Machine wash if possible. If the upholstery is removable and can be washed in the washing machine, then wash any removable fabric coverings. Allow to dry outdoors in the sunlight.
- For fabric, sprinkle baking soda on portions that cannot be washed and let sit for 24 hours. The baking soda can leach minuscule particles of soot out of the fabric. Vacuum it up and repeat the process as needed.
- For leather, hire a professional to perform a steam cleaning.
- Address odor. A lingering odor of smoke can stay in upholstered furniture after a fire. You can try to remove the odor on your own using a mixture of baking soda and vinegar. If this doesn’t work, however, you may need to hire professionals to remove the odor with an oxidizing agent.
Cleaning Fire-Damaged Wooden Furniture
- Remove soot. Soot should be removed as soon as possible. It can penetrate into a variety of materials and textures and can cause extensive damage to furniture if not removed promptly. Follow these steps:
- Remove drawers and attachments. Clean the tracks with a brush.
- Vacuum all the furniture. Use the hard attachment (not the brush) to vacuum soot from furniture.
- Wipe wooden surfaces. Use a light touch to remove soot. Use a clean cloth moistened with a mixture of wood cleaner and warm water to clean wood surfaces. Once an item is wiped down, let it air-dry.
- NOTE: Wooden furniture should not be placed outdoors to dry because wet wood could warp in hot sunshine. Instead, allow it to dry indoors in a well-ventilated space.
- Deal with smoke. Once the soot has been removed, smoke-damaged wooden furniture should be treated with specialized cleansing agents to remove discoloration and stains. Follow this process:
- Sand furniture. Sand any fire-damaged spots on the furniture.
- Clear dust. After sanding, remove any remaining dust from the furniture.
- Apply furniture restoration cream. Follow the instructions on the cream, which generally require users to apply and then let it sit for a certain amount of time. Then, work the cream into the wood.
- Wipe and buff. Wipe away any excess and buff the wooden furniture.
- Address the odor. When you work to salvage and restore wooden furniture with wood cleaning products, it should also remove the smoke odor.
Initial Cleanup Steps Following a Water Event
Floods can be devastating. According to The Pew Research Center, “Flooding is the costliest and most common natural disaster in the U.S., claiming lives, inflicting financial losses on households and businesses, and straining the government agencies that provide flood response and relief.” However, since flooding is the most common natural disaster, clear guidelines have been devised for salvaging possessions and restoring properties after a major water event.
The first step following a water disaster is to remove all wet possessions from the premises. Mold grows on wet surfaces and can create a serious health risk, so it’s important to remove wet items from your home as soon as possible. FEMA recommends not waiting for your insurance adjuster before doing so.
To help you remove soaked items safely and effectively, use the following steps as your initial salvage guide.
- Practice safety first. Do not re-enter your home unless it is safe. Even then, be vigilant inside, as floors and stairs may be slippery.
- Document the damage. Your insurance company will need to see evidence of the damage. Take photos and videos of each item and the damage it has sustained.
- Call your insurance provider. Your insurance agent is an integral part of the recovery process and should be contacted as soon as possible. However, do not wait until he or she arrives to begin removing wet items from the flooded home.
- Prioritize your possessions. Go through your home, identify the objects that seem like they can be salvaged first, and remove the items among them that are most important to you.
- Air out your home. Air circulation is key to drying out surfaces and possessions in your home and preventing further damage. Open vents, windows, and doors. Run the air conditioner. Use fans and dehumidifiers to reduce humidity and limit mold growth.
- Be gentle. Many objects will be more delicate when wet, so it is important to handle them gently.
- Rinse with clean water. If items are wet, rinse each with clean water before setting aside to dry.
- Use clean cloths. Remove debris from dry items with a soft, clean cloth. Avoid heavy scrubbing, as it might further damage your possessions.
After these initial steps in the salvage process, you next will need to follow specialized processes to save possessions depending on their materials. In the upcoming sections, we will explain various ways to salvage different possessions damaged by water, such as furniture, photographs, and books.
Salvaging Possessions and Valuables After a Flood
As FEMA explains, “With a little patience, prompt action, and professional tips, saving treasured photographs, letters, and other irreplaceable objects is possible, although it may involve a follow-up consultation with a conservator.” Some items can be “freeze-dried” over a period of time. Here are salvage tips for the most common household possessions.
- Gently clean wooden surfaces.
- Remove metal pulls and knobs.
- Blot moisture gently.
- Allow the furniture to air-dry — but do not dry wooden furniture outdoors in direct sunlight, as intense heat may cause wet wood to warp.
- Do not attempt to force swollen drawers out or open doors that are swollen shut.
- FEMA further suggests, “A slow process will help ensure that the wood dries evenly and is less likely to warp, split, or crack. Improper drying may cause the furniture to shrink or the inlay to lift.”
- Mildew may continue to grow, so it is important to use mineral spirits on mildewed surfaces.
- If the wooden furniture has white or cloudy spots, these may be removed using turpentine and a damp cloth. Wipe off immediately, and then polish with furniture polish.
- If this step does not work, you may need to sand and refinish the furniture.
- If upholstered furniture has been submerged, you may not be able to salvage it. However, if the amount of amount and the length of time it was submerged is minimal, it may be salvageable.
- As the president of the Texas Cultural Emergency Response Alliance explains, “Upholstered furniture is a sponge. A decorative sponge, but it's a sponge, and water cannot evaporate quickly enough to prevent mold […] Fabric and cushions will be ruined. Any metal springs or supports in sofas or chairs are likely coated, so they shouldn't corrode.”
- If you plan to keep the upholstered furniture, you will need to strip it and let it air dry while keeping mold away. Then, you will need to have it reupholstered.
- Remove debris from leather by rinsing with clean water and wiping with a clean cloth.
- Blot dry with towels.
- Use dry towels to help reshape item into its desired shape when dry.
- Allow the item to air-dry, reshaping as necessary.
- Start by reviewing a textile’s care label whenever possible. For example, if something is designated “dry clean only,” allow it to air-dry, then take it to a dry cleaner.
- If an item is dirty, rinse it with extreme care. Textiles are likely to be weakened by the flood damage.
- Do not wring out textiles. Instead, press the water out using your hands against a clean, smooth surface.
- Remove excess water with paper towels or blotting paper.
- Reshape garment or item while wet.
- Remove photographs from plastic or other covers.
- Do not pull apart wet and stuck-together photographs.
- Soak stuck-together photographs in clean water for up to 48 hours until they separate.
- Rinse them again after soaking.
- Avoid the temptation to touch or blot wet photos.
- Air-dry photos by clipping them up on a line or by laying them flat on a clean surface.
- If photos are framed, remove from the frame unless it’s stuck. After removal, allow the photo to air-dry with the image facing up. If it’s stuck to the frame, air-dry it with the image down.
- Purdue University publication First Steps to Flood Recovery suggests, “If there are too many photos for immediate attention, keep the photos in a container of clean water. This will preserve your photos for 48 hours. If you need more time, you can freeze them. If possible, insert freezer or waxed paper between each photo before freezing.”
- Consider using your phone or other digital camera to snap a shot of the more sentimental photos just in case the process does not work. Sometimes photos can be reproduced this way.
- Salvaged photographs should be stored in a cool, dry location. Ideally, the temperature in storage would be about 70° Fahrenheit with relative humidity below 55 percent, but even less than ideal conditions could still yield positive results.
Documents and important records may be salvageable following the same process. However, paper documents should be handled with extreme care. See the National Archives Emergency Salvage of Flood Damaged Family Papers for specifics.
- Clean DVDs with clean, cool water within 48 hours.
- The National Archives suggests, “If residue remains on the discs, wipe gently from the center out to the edges in a straight line, not in a circular motion, with a soft, lint-free, cotton cloth dampened with distilled water.”
- Blot up excess water.
- Lay DVDs on tissue, label-side down, to dry.
- Allow DVDs to air-dry.
- Do not apply heat of any kind.
- Avoid scratching the DVD during the recovery process.
Videotapes containing precious family memories can be salvaged after a flood event, depending on the amount of exposure. However, videotape recovery should be done by experienced professionals since it involves removing the magnetic tape from the reel.
- Remove art from frame or base unless it’s stuck.
- If wet, rinse with clean water. Clean any remaining debris with a sponge.
- If the paint or finish is cracking, step away and ask for professional help.
- Air-dry artwork indoors when possible.
- If a book is dirty, hold it closed and rinse with clean water.
- For very wet books, place paper towels or other absorbent material throughout the pages of the books.
- Pack books with their spines facing down in a single layer in a container.
- Put the container inside a freezer. Use the frost-free setting and turn the freezer to the lowest temperature.
NOTE: This freeze-drying process is lengthy. It will take several weeks to months for books to dry out.
- If books are only damp or slightly wet, stand them on their edge with the covers open and allow them to air-dry.
- Find all broken pieces and place them together in a container.
- Wait to repair until pieces are completely dry.
- Watch for mold growth while the pieces dry.
And remember: You can still salvage some possessions even if you can’t get to them in the first 48 hours. Lori Foley explained in Consumer Reports, “In general, you can freeze many items that cannot be dried out in 48 hours — photos, books, documents, textiles […] Freezing stops mold from growing, ink from running, and dyes from transferring. Freezing items allows you to buy some time to devote to other activities. When you are able, you can return to the frozen items and recover them on your own time.”
Hiring a Professional Restoration Company
It is important to know from the very beginning of the restoration process that you do not have to do it all on your own. And, in some cases, you will need to hire professionals because you do not have the necessary tools, or you don’t want to risk worsening the damage.
The good news is that you likely have a restoration company nearby with the equipment and skills necessary to clean and salvage your possessions. Whether you’re dealing with lingering odors after a fire or photos saturated by a flood, hiring a team of restoration professionals can alleviate your stress significantly.
Restoration companies have the equipment and expertise to clean and restore homes and possessions after a flood, storm, or fire disaster. They have the know-how to clean many of your possessions so that you can enjoy them again. Restoration companies will pack up, clean, repair, and restore your possessions, often including upholstery.
Speaking to a Conservator
In some cases, it also is wise to call for help from a professional conservator. This step is especially appropriate for precious or valuable family heirlooms. A conservator knows the expert techniques for repairing and preserving works of art and other items of cultural significance.
You can find a peer-reviewed conservator through the American Institute for Conservation by selecting “Find a Conservator.” Additionally, you may find assistance by contacting your local museum or library.
Smithsonian Magazine notes, “If disaster does strike the things you care about most, you're not alone. The National Heritage Responders, a team of trained conservators and collections professionals, are available for advice to anyone who needs it 24/7 at (202) 661-8068.”
More Contacts to Find Help Salvaging Possessions
Also, there are other groups that are ready and willing to help you salvage your possessions in your time of need. For example, you can call the Regional Alliance for Preservation, which is a national network of nonprofit organizations with expertise in the field of conservation and preservation. This organization offers free emergency advice.
Additionally, while the Heritage Emergency National Task Force is designed to assist cultural institutions, their website also offers helpful information for homeowners. Visit the website or email HENTF@si.edu for more information.
Losing treasured possessions to a disaster is painful. Fortunately, there are innumerable organizations that can help prepare to minimize damage before a disaster and guide you through the arduous process of cleaning up and recovering afterward. Below are links to many of the websites.
Weather Risk Maps
Disaster Preparedness and Response
Homeowners Insurance and Disasters
Post-Disaster Salvage Advice
Conservators, Salvage and Restoration Services
No one wants to lose their most precious possessions. Family heirlooms, antique furniture, and precious photographs are worth more than just memories. While natural disasters can turn your life upside down, it’s comforting to know it is possible to salvage the items that matter the most. Remember the steps that can help you prepare and minimize damage before a disaster and recover more quickly afterward.
- Anticipate the risks of natural disasters in your area.
- Take disaster preparedness measures to minimize possible damage.
- Make preparations to protect valuables before disaster strikes.
- Follow specific salvage directions for items made from particular materials.
- Seek professional help if necessary.
The restoration process is a lengthy one, and it can be emotionally difficult. Save what you can as soon as possible, and then wait patiently for your possessions to dry. Follow the advice of professional conservators, or consider hiring a team of restoration professionals rather than attempting to do it all on your own. Armed with information for dealing with these situations beforehand and afterward, you can make it through a disaster and its aftermath with many of your possessions intact.