Why it's important to protect your cherished, irreplaceable photos before a natural disaster happens

Imagine returning home after a major storm wreaked havoc on your neighborhood to discover not only that your house has suffered significant damage, but also that your precious family photos are unrecognizable due to mud, rain or floodwater.

It's a reality for many people who have gone through natural disasters including wildfires, flooding and hurricanes.

Following Hurricane Florence's devastation over the Carolinas, more than 2 billion images could potentially be lost, according to ScanMyPhotos.com President and CEO Mitch Goldstone.

"The reason for that is the average household has about 5,500 photos, and [we estimated] that about 350,000 homes are going to be damaged," Goldstone told AccuWeather, adding that 1 billion photos were destroyed by Hurricane Harvey-related flooding in 2017.

Flood-damaged family photos in a New-Jersey home - AP Photo
Flood-damaged family photos in a New-Jersey home - AP Photo

Barbara Oblinger, left, and her son, Ashley Oblinger, looks through a photo album damaged by flooding at her house in Little Falls, New Jersey, Monday, Aug. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

"It shouldn't happen," he said. "It's something that's highly preventable."

It's as simple as taking action to protect and preserve important photos and documents well before disasters occur.

Digitizing images is a crucial step in protecting images, Goldstone said. Images can be scanned at home and uploaded to a cloud, external hard drive or flash drive. For families with hundreds of photos, photo scanning services like ScanMyPhotos.com offer to scan photos and negatives in bulk.

"We do all of the work," Goldstone said. Users can order a pre-paid box that hold about 1,800 images each. The box can then be shipped back to the California-based company, where they digitize the images and send back the originals once the process is complete.

Unfortunately for many, natural disasters strike before they're able to back up their cherished photos, leaving the images vulnerable to the impacts of fire, water, dirt and debris.

"People break down and start crying to see their photos totally ruined," said Margie Hayes, president of Operation Photo Rescue, which has helped recover photos from natural disaster damage since Hurricane Katrina. "It's people's history, these [images] mean a lot to them."

Thanks to organizations like Operation Photo Rescue, which runs entirely on donations and offers services free of charge, some of these irreplaceable images can be restored.

The volunteer network of professional photojournalists and amateur digital photographers, graphic designers and image restoration artists works to repair pictures damaged by natural events, including house fires in rare cases.

"Fire is really the worst thing, because the heat is so bad, it melts them," Hayes said. "If the heat doesn't get them, then the water putting it out probably does."

The organization sets up copy runs in natural disaster-affected areas, and people bring in their damaged images for restoration. She noted that while they have been able to restore some fire-damaged images, they're usually left destroyed beyond repair.

Infographic - How to save flood-damaged photos
Infographic - How to save flood-damaged photos

Hayes noted that it's critical for photos damaged by water to be cleaned up as soon as possible if there's any hope for salvaging them.

"Another thing is a lot of people wait too long, so they get stuck together, and then they figure all is lost and then throw them away, which is not true," Hayes said.

"Normally, if they're stuck together, what you need to do is put them in clean water and let them soak until they start to come apart gently."

For framed photos, Hayes recommended getting the wet photo out of the frame by keeping the glass and photo together. While holding both, she advised then rinsing them with clear, flowing water, using the water stream to gently separate the image from the glass.

Some historical images are sensitive to water damage, which makes them less likely to be recoverable, according to Operation Photo Rescue.

For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.

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