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How To Save Photos From Flood, Hurricane, Storm & Water Damage

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Published on Nov 24, 2012

A triage technique to save photos damaged by flooding, storms or water. Use a "dunk & drain" process in rubbing alcohol. (Read the warning below).

This is an extreme measure. The traditional, safer option is usually to thoroughly wash the images in cold water.

Hurricane Sandy destroyed tens of thousands of my photographs. In trying to save what could be salvaged from the storm damage, which was mostly flood damage, I evolved a technique of immersing the damaged images into 91% rubbing alcohol. This worked far better than washing the images because the emulsion was already so damaged by weeks in flood water at my storage facility, the washing wiped away what was left. And washing didn't adequately stop the mold and bacteria, which can be significant health hazards in addition to destroying the images. Loss rate from washing was about 90% because the images were already so damaged. This "dunk & drain" technique in alcohol works much better than washing.

Caution. Use gloves so your skin doesn't get too dry, and to protect your body against contaminants, and possibly a medical mask in a well-ventilated area. Often, wet paper stinks. Immediately throw away the moldy remains. Mold can be actually lethal and can become airborne as it dries. Watch out not to drip alcohol where you don't want it. A plastic drip tray to carry the images to a drying location works well. To be truly safe, you should shower and wash all your clothes after working with flood damaged objects.

Note: You would NEVER put photographic prints, negatives or slides into alcohol under normal circumstances. Alcohol will damage images to some degree and make them more easily damaged later. But we're talking about triage - trying to save images that are certainly going to be completely destroyed within days if nothing is done. Think of it like battlefield First Aid. You're using a technique to save the life of the photo that a hospital (archival restoration) would never use. (Traditional techniques to save less damaged photos by washing them in water can be found here: http://www.fujifilm.com/support/photo... )

If using this on printed matter, test a small area first. Alcohol will react badly to certain inks, much worse than water in some instances. Negatives, slides and photos don't have ink.

I used a simple glass dish to hold the alcohol. But I also tried simply pouring a small amount on a glass table, laying paper or print on the fluid, and letting it soak up. This worked well for big art and things on paper (provided the paint is not affected by the alcohol). Use rubbing alcohol, as close to 100% as you can buy. It sanitizes and dries fast. Don't leave it in the alcohol more than a few seconds. Don't rub the images until after they are completely dry to avoid adding to the damage. This "dunk & drain" technique in alcohol should stop the mold growth on the photos from the flood damage, kill any bacteria and stop the disintegration of the emulsion of the photo. A big, deep sink that's easily cleaned afterwards is a good place to work. This 2 1/2 minute video shows how to save photos from flood or storm damage after they are all but gone. Good luck.

As soon as possible after the images dry, you'll want to scan them and keep them as digital files. Remember, while the alcohol will stop the rapid deterioration, it will also weaken the image, making it easier to be "smeared" or damaged in some way. Think of the images as being on life support until they are subsequently scanned into a computer.

This video: Copyright © 2012 Randy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

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