Others can help save, preserve storm victims’ memories

04/18/2012 5:00 AM

07/17/2012 3:48 PM

When tornadoes threaten, as they did last weekend, I carry the same few things to our basement storm shelter:

Flashlight.

Radio.

Cellphone.

Family photos.

This time, thank goodness, we had days to prepare. Experts warned of devastating winds, hail and potentially life-threatening tornadoes bearing down on south-central Kansas. The Weather Channel called the conditions “TOR:CON 9,” a label as surreal and ominous as a science-fiction movie.

So we gathered a few things and took them downstairs. The kids packed a bag with changes of clothes, sturdy shoes and their prized possessions.

And I fetched the scrapbooks and computer hard drives that hold the things I treasure most, next to my husband, children and pets: our family photos.

As a reporter I’ve covered countless tornadoes, floods and other disasters. I’ve watched people sift through scattered belongings and weep with joy when they find a single wedding portrait, school photo or vacation snapshot. Those pieces of paper connect us to our past. They remind us who we are, where we come from and who we love.

So I was thrilled to learn recently about efforts to reconnect disaster victims with their photographs.

Operation Photo Rescue is a nonprofit network of photographers and image restoration specialists who repair photos damaged in disasters. Since 2005, the group has visited dozens of communities to make digital copies of disaster victims’ photographs, which often are torn, waterlogged, mud-splattered or spotted with mold. Volunteers then spend hours using computer software to make the photos look like new and return them to their owners.

Before that can happen, though, victims and volunteers sifting through rubble must act quickly to salvage water-damaged photos. Some tips, from Operation Photo Rescue volunteers:

•  Carefully lift photos from mud or dirty water and rinse them to remove mud and debris.
•  Remove photos from waterlogged albums and separate any that are stacked together, being careful not to rub or touch the wet emulsion of the photo surface.
•  Photos in frames need to be saved when they are still wet; otherwise, the photo surface will stick to the glass as it dries. If that happens, don’t try to remove the photo. When you have time, you can make a digital copy of the framed photo to restore.
•  Stack wet photos between sheets of waxed paper and seal them in a zipper-lock plastic bag.
•  If possible, freeze the photos to inhibit damage. This way photos can be defrosted, separated and air-dried later. (Important note: Some historical photos should not be frozen without first consulting a professional conservator.)

These tips are useless, of course, if your photos have been scattered who knows where — an unfortunate consequence of tornado damage. After an EF-5 twister in April 1991, items from Andover and Wichita were later recovered near Emporia, Topeka and St. Joseph, Mo.

That’s where modern technology comes in handy again. A website called I Found Your Camera invites people to e-mail photos from lost cameras, memory sticks or rolls of film — or just orphaned photos — and reconnects them with their owners.

If you find someone else’s camera or photo, visit the site and help out. If you’re looking for one, check the site frequently; it could show up.

For more information about Operation Photo Restore – or if you have questions about damaged photographs – contact local volunteer Margie Hayes at 316-321-1445 or mhayes@operationphotorescue.org.

It’s probably little comfort to recent tornado victims who are worrying more about where they’ll live than about finding that old wedding or graduation photo. But it’s nice to know strangers could already be at work preserving our neighbors’ history and memories.

Because pictures are important. And they deserve saving.

About Suzanne Tobias

Suzanne writes about family life on Thursdays. She has covered local news for The Eagle since 1990. Suzanne is a native of North Carolina and earned an English degree from North Carolina State University.

Find her on Twitter: @suzannetobias

Contact Suzanne at 316-268-6567 or by emailing her at stobias@wichitaeagle.com

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