Disasters can strike anyone anywhere. As climate and weather related disasters are forecast to become more frequent and severe, it is important to have a plan if the unthinkable happens. Unfortunately, property losses from fire/smoke damage or water/flood damage often have impacts beyond financial loss as they involve our most prized and meaningful possessions. Treasured heirlooms, family photographs, artwork, letters, and other mementos are often irreplaceable. With care and prompt attention, it is possible to save many of these treasures.
We recently spoke with Dr. Nana Kaneko, Heritage Emergency National Task Force (HENTF) Specialist in FEMA’s Office of Environmental Planning and Historic Preservation (OEHP) about the Save Your Family Treasures program at HENTF.
Can you tell us about your work with communities in eastern Kentucky in the wake of last July’s flooding?
Dr. Nana Kaneko: The Heritage Emergency National Task Force (HENTF) is a public-private partnership co-sponsored by FEMA’s Office of Environmental Planning and Historic Preservation (OEHP) and the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI). Together, we advocate for the protection of cultural heritage.
One of HENTF’s objectives is to inform and guide the public to help individuals and families protect, stabilize, and recover treasured possessions before, during, and after a water-hazard event. The Save Your Family Treasures program (SYFT) began in 2016 as a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and FEMA. HENTF works with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative and the FEMA Individual Assistance Disaster Recovery Centers Unit to deploy teams of preservation experts to FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) to teach the public (including artists) how to salvage their most cherished family belongings. At the DRCs, preservation experts staff tables, demonstrating how to safely handle, dry, and clean damaged photographs, books, documents, textiles, and other keepsakes. Since 2016, SCRI has deployed teams to Louisiana, Texas, South Carolina, Nebraska, and Iowa after federally declared disasters. More recently, SYFT has been expanded to train FEMA Environmental and Historic Preservationstaff members as well.
In response to the recent flooding in eastern Kentucky, I accompanied five Collections Care Specialty holders from August 15-26, 2022 to conduct two weeks of SYFT demonstrations and guidance at five DRCs in Breathitt, Clay, Knott, Perry, and Letcher counties engaging with disaster survivors, other DRC staff, and media personnel. We worked with External Affairs in the field to get the word out about our services, which resulted in at least 5 published media interviews with more coverage still forthcoming.
What are the most common items people are bringing to salvage or asking for advice about?
Dr. Nana Kaneko: The most cherished items that disaster survivors want to save are family photographs, but we also received many inquiries about books, textiles, and documents, such as the family bible, Grandma’s wedding dress, and historic manuscripts. We have material-specific fact sheets available on our FEMA.gov page.
We do not handle objects, but we will discuss how to handle, dry, and clean these items, as well as personal safety during the salvage process, setting priorities, and treatment options.
Would your work/program be relevant to artists who are trying to salvage their artwork, tools, or materials following a disaster?
Dr. Nana Kaneko: Yes, absolutely! We welcome everyone to stop by our tables at the DRCs. If a person staffing a table is unable to answer an inquiry that may require additional expertise, we also have connections to professional conservators and conservation centers that may be able to provide additional technical assistance.
How do you know if an item is too badly damaged to be salvageable?
Dr. Nana Kaneko: If something is of significant value to a disaster survivor, but seems too moldy or water-logged to handle, we encourage them to try to freeze the item sealed with freezer paper and freezer tape to buy themselves more time while deciding whether to seek professional conservation treatment.