Since You Asked... October 2005

September 30, 2005

Q: "Thousands of valuable documents and personal records have been reported damaged by Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast. Our church also was flooded, and important documents were damaged. What advice can you give church libraries and archives to restore material following a natural disaster?" 

Lisa Fox, senior conservator at the Missouri State Archives and a member of Grace Episcopal Church, Jefferson City, Mo., responds:

A: Now that so many weeks have passed since Hurricane Katrina came ashore, the recovery options are much more limited than when one can salvage materials immediately after a disaster.  I was closely involved in recovery efforts following Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Hugo in 1989.  As I recently said to a fellow Episcopalian, “I have the scarred hard hat and steel-toed boots to prove it.”  In both cases, people were able to return very soon to their homes, offices, and churches.

“Timing is everything” when it comes to staging a recovery effort. The sooner the salvage operation begins, the greater the chances of a successful recovery. Two major problems arise when salvage efforts are delayed.  First, mold is likely to begin growing within 72 hours after materials are water-damaged, when temperatures are above 70 degrees and relative humidity is above 50 percent. Mold poses a health threat and will digest organic materials such as paper and cloth. Second, the longer organic materials are wet, the weaker they become.

Here are some options available to churches damaged by Hurricane Katrina and to congregations that wish to prepare against damage from future disasters.

Document the damage

If the church has commercial insurance, the first step -- before diving in to save things -- is to take lots and lots of photographs to document the extent and type of damage.  In a regional disaster such as a tornado, hurricane or earthquake, you may need to begin salvage operations before the insurance adjuster comes on-site.  Photographs can document the state of damage before you began work.

Better yet, take many photographs of the building, furnishings and assets in “ordinary time” – before disaster strikes – to document the condition of these assets before they were damaged.  Take overall photographs (exterior and interior) of the building, and close-ups of specific items such as your altar, stained-glass windows, vestments, altar vessels and so on. Then, if they are stolen or damaged, you will have documentation to buttress your insurance claim.

When disaster strikes, get damaged items cold and dry as quickly as possible. (Unfortunately, those are also two of the most difficult things to achieve during summer in the South.)
Strangely enough, for most items, the best way to achieve this is by getting them frozen as quickly as possible.  To reduce the risk of mold, that needs to be done within 48 hours.  Churches might be able to transport damaged items to a location that still has electricity to support air-conditioning or -- better yet -- freezers.

Once the items are frozen, the church can assess the extent of damage and plan the salvage operation. To read a summary of which materials can be frozen (almost everything except computer media) and how to dry them, visit:

Salvage and restore

In case of a large-scale, regional disaster, freezers or refrigerators may be unavailable.  In that case, there are two ways to reduce the risk of mold.

First, maximize air circulation by opening all windows and, if possible, turn on high-velocity fans.  Second, open all windows — assuming there are any windows left — and expose the items to sunlight, because UV radiation tends to prevent mold growth.

If need be, place items in a secure location outdoors, where they are exposed to sunlight. Air circulation and sunlight will reduce the threat of mold. If many items are water-damaged, the simplest solution is to contact one of the many respected salvage companies.  Several of these are listed at


Companies like Belfor, Blackmon-Mooring, Document Reprocessors, Munters, & SOLEX have a nationwide presence; many have designed their equipment so it can be transported in the cargo hold of commercial jets, so they can be on the spot very quickly.  In fact, Munters almost made it to Miami before I could get there from Atlanta.

Many of those companies also have dehumidification capabilities that can save much expense.  They may be able to dry building structures (drywall, floors, etc.), carpeting and damp materials in situ. Insurance companies often call in such companies to minimize their losses.

There are different methods of salvaging the materials in our churches (paper and books, photographs, vestments and altar hangings, metal objects, etc.).  The Minnesota Historical Society provides detailed instructions for salvaging these historical materials and artifacts at

If materials have been badly damaged, the church may wish to consult a conservator to restore them.  The Regional Alliance for Preservation, lists organizations throughout the United States and the Caribbean that can perform conservation treatment for damaged items. Other conservators may be identified through the American Institute for Conservation,

Because Hurricane Katrina is so much on our minds, it is natural to focus on cataclysmic natural disasters.  But, more often than not, “disasters” are localized: fires in church buildings, roof leaks and plumbing breaks that cause small-scale damage. Stewardship calls for congregations to develop plans for disaster preparedness.

For more information about disaster plans, visit and

Damage can be minimized by taking preventive steps such as installing sprinklers and water detectors.  Historical records can be protected if they are stored in water-resistant enclosures such as file cabinets. Many state archives are willing to microfilm historical documents (such as records of baptisms, deaths and weddings) at no charge to the church.


The preservation community has published many resources on disaster preparedness and recovery, and many organizations exist to provide advice to churches that are developing disaster plans or that are faced with the challenge of recovering after a disaster.  Here are some of the best.

  1. Conservation OnLine – -- has a wide variety of resources. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it also has special links at
  2. Heritage Preservation:  The Heritage Emergency National Task Force at provides many useful links.
  3. The Regional Alliance for Preservation -- -- lists organizations throughout the United States that can provide disaster-recovery advice and (in some cases) conservation treatment for damaged items.
  4. An exhaustive step-by-step recovery guide is available at in PDF or HTML format. It includes instructions for salvaging almost any kind of item a church would have -- furniture, vestments and other textiles, photographs and works of art, papers and books, artifacts, etc.