Posted by Denise May Levenick on March 11, 2015 in Website

With spring floods and hurricane season just around the corner, a recent episode of Genealogy Roadshow shared a story with a timely reminder for “genealogy preparedness.”  New Orleans resident Andrew Sentilles came to the the New Orleans Board of Trade Episode of the PBS Genealogy Roadshows how looking for help to recreate the family history he lost when photos and documents were swept away by Hurricane Katrina.

Josh Taylor with Andrew Sentilles and family on the 
New Orleans Episode of PBS Genealogy Roadshow
Josh Taylor with Andrew Sentilles and family on the 
New Orleans Episode of PBS Genealogy Roadshow

Genealogist Josh Taylor showed how local archives can help recreate those lost family records using rich resources such as family Bible collections, personal journals, scrapbooks, and ephemera. The Genealogy Roadshow researchers were able to assemble a far-reaching family history for Sentilles, who came away from the experience vowing to put copies of the family history in “everybody’s hands and we won’t be losing it in any storm ever again!”

Like many genealogists who have learned about disaster recovery the hard way, Sentilles has heard the chants “Backup your Data” and “Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.” Unfortunately, so many families lose treasured photos, documents, and keepsakes every year to disasters of all kinds. I live in Southern California where wildfires are a threat, but you may live where tornadoes, hurricanes, or floods are a worry. Anyone who lives in a house or apartment is at risk for damage and loss to their personal collections from a house fire or burst plumbing.

Thousands of New Orleans families lost everything to Hurricane Katrina.
Thousands of New Orleans families lost everything to Hurricane Katrina.

Tips to Safeguard  Your Home Archive

When you look for a location to store your family keepsakes, think about potential hazards and steer clear of danger areas:

  • Avoid garages, basements, and attics
  • Keep away from plumbing and electrical wiring, either exposed or hidden inside the walls
  • Keep storage boxes on raised shelving off the ground
  • Keep treasures away from windows, doors and fireplaces
  • Avoid heating and air conditioning vents

Backup 3 – 2 -1

Andrew Sentilles has the right idea — make lots of digital copies and give them to everyone! Don’t keep all your genealogy data and priceless heirlooms in one place. The Backup 3 – 2 – 1 strategy is a good one:

  • 3 copies
  • 2 different media (DVDs and external hard drives or cloud storage)
  • 1 copy offsite (in the cloud, at your office, or with a relative)

Multiple copies give your photos and documents a better chance to survive disaster. After you’ve made those digital copies, save the originals in archival storage in your BEST archival storage location. And, sleep better when the wind tears through the trees knowing that you have digital copies in the Cloud, with your cousins, and on an external hard drive at your office.

Safeguard Family Heirlooms

Digital images of photographs, family letters, and treasured heirlooms will never fully replace a lost keepsake, but pictures and stories can preserve the memories of a special piece of furniture, a quilt, or a framed photograph. Take time to document the family heirlooms in your home and write down the provenance and significance of the items. You might create a simple Family Keepsake album with photos and stories that can be printed or shared as a digital slideshow, or you might want to upload images to a family website or blog. Read my article Before the The Pirate Toy Chest Became an Heirloom for ideas on researching and recording the story of a family treasure.

After you’ve assembled your heirloom history, share it widely with family, friends, and other researchers. Consider uploading images and stories to genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com or to the online heirloom history site The Heirloom Registry.

When Disaster Strikes

Safety first! If your home is hit by fire, flood, or other disaster, focus on safeguarding personal and family safety. When it’s safe to turn your attention to family treasures, keep in mind a few basic tips:

  • Water-logged or fire-damaged items can pose health hazards; you may need plastic gloves, air filter masks, or other protection.
  • Inspect archival storage for damage. If container lids have come open, the contents may be wet and damaged. Remove wet photos and documents and freeze or air dry within 48 hours.
  • Wet wooden furniture, textiles, metal clocks or instruments will need air drying. Remove photos from frames if possible and dry.
  • Collect loose items and store temporarily.

To freeze wet paper or photographs for later drying, place a sheet of regular kitchen wax paper between wet photos to keep them from sticking together, place the stacked items inside zipper type plastic bags, and freeze until you have time to defrost and air dry.

If your electricity and freezer are not working, air dry photos flat on a clean sheet or hanging from a line with clothespins. Air circulation will help items to dry faster.

Don’t despair. Professional conservators can often salvage or repair items. Consult the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) for experts in your state or county.

Plan Ahead

A regular computer backup plan is a good first step to safeguard your genealogy research and images, but remember to include family photos and memorabilia in your disaster preparedness plan. Think about the items that are most precious to you and your family — granddad’s pocket watch, a handmade lace tablecloth from the old country, or a family Bible. Know how to locate your treasures quickly so that you can take them with you if you are evacuated from your home, and share digital images and stories to preserve your family legacy.

Photos: PBS Genealogy Roadshow

Denise May Levenick is the author of How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia & Genealogy Records, and the new book How to Archive Family Photos (coming Spring 2015). For more ideas on preserving your family treasures, visit Denise’s websiteTheFamilyCurator.com.

Denise May Levenick

Denise May Levenick is the author of How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia & Genealogy Records, and the new book How to Archive Family Photos (coming Spring 2015). For more ideas on preserving your family treasures, visit Denise's website

8 Comments

  1. Garcie Locklear

    This article, Plan Ahead: Protect Your Genealogy from Disaster, is very informative and helpful. When there is a disaster much is lost. Genealogist Josh Taylor showed how local archives can help recreate those lost family records. Photos of New Orleans families showed everything lost to Hurricane Katrina. I have not lost everything by a hurricane, but I have lost everything by a house fire. I tried to salvage family photos, heirlooms, family genealogy, & journals.

    The “tips to safeguard your home archive” allows one to think about potential hazards and steer clear of danger areas. Great ideas to make digital copies-give to cousins, have digital copies in the Cloud, and on an external hard drive at your office.
    This is a great way to preserve your photos and genealogy. This is something I plan on pursuing to be on the safe side.

  2. Dayle Palmer

    Thank you very, very much for your informative post! I am sharing this one, as i know several people who would be interested in this sort of thing. Could you solicit some more ideas, or stories, of people doing this, so people can get more ideas on how it’s done, and post it?

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