Disaster Response Tips and FAQs

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Following a water disaster, large or small, it is possible to salvage most wet documents, books, and photographs. After the water recedes, high temperatures will cause mold to begin to grow on wet paper within 48 hours or less. The sooner drying can begin, the better.
The best method for drying books depends on the degree of wetness. Air-drying is most appropriate for books that are only damp or wet in places (see FAQ below on how to air dry). If books cannot be opened to air-dry, they should not be forced. Instead, vacuum freeze-dry them to minimize the cockling of leaves and distortion of bindings.
Freezing will stop mold growth and buy you time to deal with the situation at a later date. Wrap individual books so they will be easier to thaw. Wrap groups of documents and groups of photographs rather than trying to separate them. A major disaster will bring disaster recovery vendors into the area as soon as the water recedes. In addition to performing vacuum or vacuum freeze drying for businesses and government agencies, they do work for private citizens. (For more information, contact ADAH staff at 334 242-4452.)
  1. Move the books to be air-dried to a clean, dry area where the temperature and relative humidity can be kept as low as possible (preferably around 65 degrees F. and 50% relative humidity) to prevent mold growth
  2. Use fans to keep the air moving at all times, but do not allow air to blow directly on the books. Air circulation will aid in drying and also discourage mold growth. If drying has to be performed outdoors, keep the books out of wind and direct sunlight. Prolonged exposure to heat and sunlight accelerates paper's degradation.
  3. Cover tables with Visqueen (plastic sheeting). Carefully supporting the wet books, stand them on end (upside down) on a small stack of paper towels. This will allow water to drain from the volumes. To keep the humidity down, replace paper towels and take them from the drying room as soon as they get wet. Once the books stop draining, they can be laid flat to continue drying.
  4. Separate books by their degree of wetness, and concentrate on salvaging the wettest books first. Use two or three paper towels or sheets of blank (unprinted) newsprint to interleave book pages and absorb moisture. Place towels inside the front and back covers, then interleave them every 20-25 pages, starting from the back of the book and turning the pages carefully. (Interleaving at more frequent intervals will increase distortion of the volume.) Lay the book flat on several paper towels. Continue to replace the wet paper towels until the book is nearly dry. Turn the book over each time that it is interleaved.
  5. Books that are only slightly wet may be stood on end, fanned open, and allowed to air-dry. To minimize distortion of page edges, lay the volumes flat under light pressure just before drying is complete. If stored in an air-conditioned room (with temperature between 50-65 degrees F., and relative humidity between 25-35%), books with wet edges will dry without interleaving in about two weeks.
  6. When books are dry but still cool to the touch, close them and lay them flat on a table to continue drying. Gently form each book back into its normal shape: the spine should be convex and the front edge concave. Use a light weight (e.g., a paper-wrapped brick) to hold the book in place. Do not stack drying books on top of each other. If it is done very carefully--so that the spine is outside the boards-a book may be placed in a book press to facilitate flattening as much as possible.

Following drying, some distortion of the books is likely; it may, in fact, be quite extensive. Dampness will persist for some time in the inner margins, along the spines, and between boards and end papers. Books should not be returned to shelves until they are completely dry. Check the books often for mold growth, both during drying and for about a year afterward.

For local government records, provide a description of the records that are not recoverable and the circumstances of the destruction and document in a memo to the Local Government Records Commission. Contact ADAH staff for assistance at 334-242-4452.