6 Tips on How to Protect Pictures During a Hurricane

Here in South Carolina, we are preparing for one of the biggest storms in history. One of the worst things that can happen in life is to have your home and belongings destroyed by a hurricane. The devastation from wind and flooding can cause damage that can take years to repair, if at all. With all of the devastation and destruction of Hurricane Harvey last week, and the upcoming landfall of Hurricane Irma, I have been getting this question:

“What is the best way to make sure to save my pictures in case of a hurricane”

At the end of every one of my sessions, I discuss preparations with my clients on how to make sure they save all of their images if there is a natural disaster like a hurricane or flood. For some, it seems like a ridiculous thing to discuss.  But, unfortunately, it happens. Here in South Carolina just two years ago, we had devastating floods. Not long after, the town I grew up in outside of New Orleans lost an estimated 98% of their assets and homes. As a girl growing up on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana it was just common practice to be HABITUALLY prepared.

After you have made your plans for evacuation, prepared yourself with food, water and other necessities to literally “weather the storm”, you should consider the preservation of all the memories your family has shared.

All of your pictures are important, but your images captured by a professional photographer are more likely to be heirloom images families will want to pass on for generations. You will want to protect these more than any other of your pictures.

So, what’s the best way to keep your images safe? Well, I wish I knew an absolute PERFECT solution, but nothing is guaranteed. I can help you with some great tips on making sure your pictures endure for your family…

1. Back up your digital images monthly on flash drives or whatever the most current technology is for saving images. Place these devices into TWO or maybe even THREE Ziploc FREEZER baggies which have a double zip closing option and zip them completely and properly. Do not use the bags with sliders on them because they may be more likely to allow leaks if not closed properly, especially if you are doing it hastily. Stack each bag so the closed end of one is placed in the bottom of the next bag. It is important to use the freezer bags, since sandwich and storage bags are thinner plastic.

Keep these in your safe deposit box at your bank and store in a box that is as close to the top of the room as possible. Even if your bank floods the vault is usually as air tight as possible. Since a bank building is built around the vault due to the weight, even if your bank is completely destroyed the vault is unlikely to be damaged severely. I know this because I used to build banks for a living. Clients, you didn’t know that did you?

If a hurricane is pending, get those back ups done and up to the bank pronto!

2. Back up to an online service monthly! Set any and all of your computers, ipads, phones or whatever devices you maintain your images on to back up either automatically after each image is captured, weekly or monthly. Because these services are subscription based, make sure to do this in ADDITION to my #1 recommendation above. If you ever forget to pay your subscription or images are deleted, you will still have them on your back up devices at the bank.

Don’t rely on an ability to bring a device with you in order to save the images. In a real disaster, you will need to worry more about saving your device batteries for emergency calls, weather, radio and gps services. Carry Ziploc bags in your hurricane survival kits to place your phones in. Ya’ll I promise I don’t have stock in Ziploc, but I’m going to pound into your heads to stock up!  It’s such a cheap, easy and practical way to save items from water damage and they are light and easy to carry, even if space is limited.

3. Protect your prints, too! This is a MUST for your family’s history. In a hurry, you can remove your favorite or most prized printed images from their frames and place them in the Ziplocs. Add a small piece of cardboard, if available (something like that empty Ziploc box) to help keep them flat.  If you are being evacuated, this is easy and takes up very little room. If you are really concerned about water leakage, throw Duct Tape by 3M over the seams of all baggies.

4. You may have to choose which images are the most important to take with you in an evacuation situation and which you have to leave. It is heart-wrenching to have to make decisions quickly in a situation like this. If time permits and you can safely take the time, place any Ziploc stored images that you can not take with you into plastic bins. Using your Duct Tape or even better Gorilla Tape, cover all of the edges with a couple of layers and make sure the tape is pressed firmly without puckers, spaces or lifted areas.

Don’t overload the bins. Keep the weight to just a few pounds in each bin. If your picture albums allow you to remove the pages, do this to keep the bins light. You want the bins to be light enough to float if water does enter your home. Store as high as possible on the highest room of your home, but not in the attic, just in case your roof comes off.

Label all the bins using a permanent marker with your name, address, telephone number and email address. If your home is ruined and the bins are released from you home into the environment, having your bins light enough to float, sealed to keep the air in and water out, along with your contact information will make it more likely some of them may be recoverable, even if they travel long distances. If a stranger finds your bins, they will be more likely to return them if you have made it easy to contact you.

5. If your picture albums do not allow you to easily remove the images or pages, there are a few things you can do.  One is to consider wrapping them in several layers of Hefty’s LAWN AND LEAF Bags, fold over the edges several times and tape them. It is important not to use standard kitchen bags or stretch bags as they will leak water. Lawn and Leaf bags are thicker and sturdier. Have gallery wrapped images or other big print items? This is also a great option for this style of prints as well.  Label these with a silver colored permanent marker (black will not show up) with the same contact information I suggested above.

Another way to protect the images in your albums is to remove the weight of the front and back covers before storing. You may come home to a perfectly dry home and have torn up your albums, but you still have them. I would reserve this method only for people who live in areas where floods are certain to occur.

6. Anything last minute you can’t store or bring with you should go into your dishwasher! It might be a last resort, but your dishwasher is not only waterproof, but built in.  This might be a great place to put those albums and maybe those harddrives that you are worried about saving.  But, as I keep saying… use those protective bags – just in case. (To give credit where credit is due, right after I finished writing this, fellow photographer Debbie Turner of Turner Photo Restoration suggested this great idea)

  • UPDATE: Some have mentioned they are skeptical of this last practice in #6. I understand! I grew up in hurricane zones and I guess it never occurred to me that some may not realize that it is a common practice to remove the drain connections from your dishwasher to reduce the risk of sewage backflow. Also, pulling from my knowledge in the construction and home inspection industry (before my photography days), many states mandate the use of what is called a backflow prevention device or system. It’s probably not something you have ever really heard of before, but these are designed precisely to keep sewage back up from happening.  Of course, in a natural disaster, there are no guarantees. Just practice the best possible prevention that you can muster.
  • Because of some meme going around the internet where someone has just thrown stuff into the dishwasher without protecting it in bags, there have been many comments about this being a viable solution. Just note that in a natural disaster NOTHING is a sure thing. Do what you can and make the decision for yourself, but there are no guarantees. The intent of THIS blog is to help you as much as possible with tips to ATTEMPT to save as many images as you can. And, sheesh.  So many internet haters, it’s ridiculous.

I’m sure there are many other ideas out there to help you save your family’s most prizes possessions.  Do the best you can in this situation.  Always make sure your family comes first. Even the beautiful pictures and memories you have created and collected along the way are not more important than the well being of your family.

I hope this quick article gave you some good ideas! Stay Safe!

Marcelle Raphael is a Professional Photographer in Columbia, South Carolina