How to recover personal items or collections that have been damaged by flood water
Follow the steps below to recover items that have been damaged by flood water. These resources have been developed by our conservators at the University of Melbourne to assist you in recovering items in your home, workplace, local museum or Historical Society.
For further support, you can always contact our team of conservators directly on 03 9348 5700 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
Watch our short video featuring Principal Conservator of Paper and Photography Katy Glen as she demonstrates how you can recover items from flood damage. Video: Paul Burston.
Video duration: 3 minutes 33 seconds
For subtitles, view the video via YouTube.
You can also download our factsheet for further information.
A summary of flood recovery steps from the video is outlined below. Remember, before disposing of precious items, ask a conservator. Many items can actually be saved.
1. Safety first!
Step 1: Ensure your recovery area is safe to enter.
Step 2: Wear gloves and a mask when handing items.
2. Materials and Equipment
Step 1: Prepare your materials.
Emergency Flood Recovery - list of materials and equipment
Step 2: Wear personal protective equipment such as clothing protection, and always wear gloves and a mask.
Step 3: Create a workspace, preferably outside or in a well ventilated space.
3. Handle items carefully
Step 1: Waterlogged items can be heavy and fragile, place them on a tray or chopping board to move.
Step 2: Avoid touching the surface of photographs.
Step 3: De-frame works to allow them to air dry completely.
Step 4: Ask a conservator before throwing away precious items, many things can actually be saved!
4. Prioritise your items
Step 1: Sort items and prioritise your most valuable.
Step 2: Sort dirty items from clean. Dirty items will require rinsing.
5. Rinsing muddy items
Step 1: Place flat items on a tray or flat board.
Step 2: Run clean water gently from the top edge across the surface.
Step 3: Books can be carefully rinsed while closed, or placed on a board and rinsed.
6. Drying wet items
Step 1: Find a drying location with good airflow (but not windy).
Step 2: If you have space, place items face up on a towel, sheets or other absorbent materials. Change when the become damp.
Step 3: Some items can be dried on clothes lines or drying racks.
Step 4: Damp books can be dried fanned out or open, turning pages regularly. Do not open very wet or sodden books, instead blot all external surfaces and interleave every few pages with absorbent materials. Be careful not to over extend the spine.
7. If you need to act quickly, you can freeze some items
Step 1: If you don't have time to air dry material, you can freeze some items it to prevent mould and air dry later.
Step 2: Before freezing, rinse off mud, drain and blot off excess water.
Step 3: You can freeze items together, but make sure they are wrapped or separated with baking paper and then sealed in plastic bags. This prevents them from sticking together.
Step 4: Place items in a freezer, or if unavailable, an esky or fridge will slow mould growth.
1. Even very dirty and water-logged items can be restored in the future if they have been dried or frozen.
2. Mould and contaminated water are potential health risks, limit your exposure and wear and mask and gloves.
3. Cooler environments will slow the rate of mould growth.
We've compiled a number of resources which may assist in answering some questions you may have.
Mould can develop within a few days if items are wet and conditions warm. Here are some resources on how to control mould.
- The University of Melbourne Factsheet on Managing Mould.
- State Library of NSW Dealing with Mould
- Managing a Mould Infestation: Guidelines for Disaster Response: https://ccaha.org/sites/default/files/attachments/2019-09/Mold%20Technical%20Bulletin%202019_GM.pdf
- Removing Mould From Leather: https://www.canada.ca/en/conservation-institute/services/conservation-preservation-publications/canadian-conservation-institute-notes/removing-mould-leather.html
Freezing items to prevent mould
If conditions are not allowing you to dry items quickly, you can prevent mould by freezing.
What can (and can't) be frozen?
Paper and some photographs. Many textiles and wooden items. However, if there are several material types present within the object, such as plastics, metals or paint layers, freezing can be problematic as each medium responds differently to the change in temperature.
We don’t recommend freezing the following materials due to embrittlement and possible fracturing: glass, ivory, bone, teeth, painted objects and wood panels, wax, leather, ceramics, wooden objects with joins, objects with craquelure (network of fine cracks on the surface) or other finish deterioration such as veneers that are splitting or warped, instruments with strings under tension. If in doubt consult a conservator.
- If you are freezing a lot of wet items, wrap each in baking paper so they don't stick together.
- Place the items in a see-through, zip-lock polyethylene plastic bag. Gently squeeze out any excess air before sealing. You can double bag the item and seal with adhesive tape.
- Place the bag in a domestic frost-free freezer, elevated from the base and not in contact with other items. The freezer must be at least -21 degrees Celsius and able to rapidly cool items.
- Open the freezer as seldom as possible during to reduce temperature fluctuations.
Post Freezing Treatment
- Remove bagged items from the freezer, but do not open the seal on the bag until the package has returned to room temperature - it is safest to wait 12 - 24 hours. It is best to thaw the item as slowly as possible.
- Handle the package as little as possible after removing it from the freezer to prevent damage to the items inside, as they are usually very brittle when frozen.
- Once the package has returned to room temperature, the bag may be opened and the items removed.
- Begin the drying process.
Drying wet paper
For tips on how to dry paper, follow the link below.
- American Institute of Conservation: Stabilising wet paper https://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Stabilizing_Wet_Paper
Drying wet paintings
Follow the guides below for tips on how to recover artworks. Contact a conservator for advice in the first instance.
- AICCM Factsheet: Actions for drying flood-damaged artworks (paintings)
- American Institute of Conservation: Stabilising wet paintings https://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Stabilizing_Wet_Paintings
- Emergency Treatment of Water Damaged Paintings on Canvas: https://www.canada.ca/en/conservation-institute/services/conservation-preservation-publications/canadian-conservation-institute-notes/emergency-treatment-water-damaged-paintings.html
Drying wet photographs
For advice on how to dry wet photographs, visit the links below.
- CCAHA – Salvaging Photograph Collections: https://ccaha.org/sites/default/files/attachments/2018-07/technical-bulletin-salvaging-photographs.original.pdf
- AIC Photographic Materials Group – Emergency Response, Salvage and Recovery Techniques for photographs: https://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/PMG_Emergency_Response,_Salvage,_and_Recovery_Techniques
- Stabilising Wet Photographic Materials: https://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Stabilizing_Wet_Photographic_Materials
Drying wet books
If you have wet books, here are some links for further information
- CCAHA – Salvaging books: https://ccaha.org/sites/default/files/attachments/2018-07/technical-bulletin-salvaging-books.original.pdf
- Conservation wiki - Stabilising wet books: https://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Stabilizing_Wet_Books
- NEDCC - Emergency Salvage of Wet Books and Records: https://www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/3.-emergency-management/3.6-emergency-salvage-of-wet-books-and-records
Questions? Contact us to talk to a conservator directly.Contact us