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When Waters Rise: Nine Basic Steps for Flood Response and Recovery

Severe weather and flooding throughout the nation's Midwest has recently brought salvage and recovery of cultural collections and family treasures onto our front pages once more. The Library's Preservation Directorate has long provided information to support preservation, including emergency preparedness and disaster response for individuals and families as well as libraries, archives, and museums. See also Quick Reference: Disaster Response and Recovery, Spring/Summer 2008; A Primer on Disaster Preparedness, Management and Response: Paper-Based Materials, and Response to Floods and Water Damage for Libraries, Archives, Museums, and other Repositories for reliable, practical information for institutions and individuals faced with flood protection, salvage, and recovery of collections.

  1. Place human safety first. Listen for flood watches and warnings. Evacuate early, helping all people who need help to depart safely. Follow recommended exit routes.
  2. Protect collections by moving them to upper levels of the building. Brace and secure large objects, covering them with plastic. Back up essential databases (collection documentation and business records) and take the back-ups to the upper level of the building. Cover all collections with plastic sheeting and tape down.
  3. If you can't evacuate, move emergency supplies, high-value collections, emergency plan, and vital records to the highest part of the building. Wait until the water has receded, then evacuate with great care. Avoid all areas with standing or running water. Move carefully when exiting as walks and roads may be slippery or crumbling.
  4. Shut down the building when necessary. Sandbag areas likely to leak. Tape or board windows or use storm shutters. Super cool the building to the extent possible using HVAC, then turn off all utilities, particularly gas and electricity, at the source.
  5. Keep in touch with civil authorities, managers (including building managers), and emergency plan personnel about your location and situation via cell phone.
  6. Once authorities state that the building is safe for re-entry, put on protective equipment, then assess and document the collections and building damage. Before entering, put on nitrile gloves, masks, long-sleeved clothing, and hard-bottomed rubber boots or steel-toed boots). Enter with care. Watch for broken or sharp materials; sagging ceilings, floors, and walls; asbestos; electrical/gas hazards; chemicals and contaminants; carbon monoxide from improperly vented pumps or generators (be alert to dizziness, headaches, nausea); animals; and mold. After assessing damage, call managers, insurance agents, and salvage/freezer contractors. Mobilize your emergency team.
  7. Dry out the building and collections by opening doors and windows to establish cross-ventilation. Add fans, lights, dehumidifiers, and other drying agents such as pumps and generators as soon as it is safe to use power sources.
  8. Remove and dry collection items from the mud or water in priority order and take them to your salvage space, where you have supplies and tools. Begin drying. If you can't dry materials within 48 hours, obtain assistance from a contractor to freeze or dry collections in a cool, dry space. If collections are not frozen or dried in 48 hours, mold growth is likely.
  9. Dry items at greatest risk within your most valuable collections first (i.e., coated paper, parchment, photographs, vellum). For more guidance see Library of Congress Emergency Drying Procedures for Water Damaged Collections and for family treasures.
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