Protect What’s Priceless: 8 Tips for Disaster Proofing Your Family History

Uncategorized Sep 11, 2020

Catastrophic fires are raging here in the west, while hurricanes barrel toward the gulf coast. In the news, daily stories of families who’ve lost everything, including irreplaceable family photos and keepsakes.


If disaster strikes, are you ready 
with a plan to save your family keepsakes?

Download my free Evacuation Checklist and keep reading.


It's National Preparedness Month and this year's theme is “Disasters Don’t Wait. Make Your Plan Today.” I saw this in action recently when I was traveling with a friend. We were hours away from their home when they received a call to evacuate.  They immediately went into action, calling a family member living nearby and providing a list of items to remove from the house including photos, documents, and family heirlooms.

I was impressed that their Emergency Evacuation Plan included a checklist of their treasured family history. 

Disasters come in all types and often without warning. Depending on where you live, you might be at greater risk for natural disasters such as wildfires, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, landslides, and tornadoes.  A house fire or a broken pipe can destroy just as much. After moving into a new home years ago, I carefully stored my family history boxes in the basement for safekeeping until I finished unpacking the rest of my belongings. A week later, a flood from a broken pipe in the basement destroyed 75% of my family photos, baby books, and other treasured items.

Your home contains a lifetime of memories. If your home suffered damage, what family photos would you lose? How long would it take you to replace years of genealogy research? What precious family heirlooms would be gone forever?

8 Tips to Protect Your Family History from Disasters

1. Create a Family Emergency Plan

Before you tackle your family history, create a Family Emergency Plan to prepare and protect yourself and your loved ones during a disaster. The American Red Cross and have great resources and FREE emergency templates. 

2. Organize and Digitize

Time to tackle those boxes of family photos and keepsakes.

Photos: Before you digitize, organize. Group photos by events and people. Separate duplicates. Sort piles by date. Scan using a flatbed scanner or consider the EpsonFastFoto FF-680W, which can scan one 4x6 photo per second. There are also photo digitizing services that will do this for you, such as and  Simply ship them your photos and media in a provided insured box, and they do the rest.

Tip: This is a great opportunity to create a private online family album or family photo books as gifts.

Family Heirlooms and Keepsakes: Your heirlooms and keepsakes include treasured items passed down from generation to generation, such as jewelry, china, furniture, memorabilia, clothing, instruments, and collections.

Create a Family Heirloom Inventory List, noting each item, who it belonged to, why it’s significant, the value, and where it is kept. Take pictures and video of these items. While heirlooms are not replaceable, a photo or video can preserve their memory.  

Tip:  Take this opportunity to create a Family Keepsake Album, including photos of the items and their stories to share with family members.

Family Records, Papers, and Books:  As you did with photos, organize before you digitize. Gather birth certificates, diplomas, marriage licenses, deeds, and letters. Look for scrapbooks, baby books, and school yearbooks and records. Organize by individual and then by year. Scan using a flatbed scanner or Google PhotoScan.

3. Preserve Photos Heirlooms and Keepsakes

Once items have been organized, digitized, and documented, those not on display should be preserved. Like a museum, store these treasured items in archival quality boxes in a safe place. Choose a dark location free from dust, pests, and where temperature and humidity are fairly constant. Keep them away from windows, vents, pipes and electric wires. Avoid basements, garages, and attics. Boxes should be at least a foot off the floor in case of flooding.

4. Genealogy Research

If genealogy is your hobby (or obsession) create an inventory list of your genealogical binders and research materials. Make sure you have digital copies of everything. Create an inventory list of your passwords for important online accounts and genealogy websites. Encrypt the list and store it in the cloud or your safe deposit box.

5. Back-up Digital Files Using the 3-2-1 Rule

Regularly back-up your digitized items and files. Follow the 3-2-1 Rule: Three copies stored on two different media and one copy off-site. Multiple back-ups in different locations increase their chances of your back-up survival. Use external hard-drives and thumb drives, keeping one copy in a safe-deposit box or with a relative. Set-up regular back-ups to a cloud service such as DropBox, Carbonite, or iCloud.

6. Get an Insurance Checkup

Using your Family Heirloom Inventory List, contact your insurance agent about extra coverage you might need for family heirloom items. Find out exactly what emergencies you’re covered for, and whether archival restoration is included in your policy.

7. Create a Genealogy Evacuation Checklist

If you were told to evacuate, what family keepsakes and documents would you grab? Stressful situations make it hard to think of everything. Plan ahead and create a list of the items and their location so you can move quickly. Safety first! After loved ones, pets, and emergency supplies, consider what you can realistically fit in your vehicles.

Download your
Genealogy Evacuation Checklist here.



8. Create a Genealogy Disaster Kit

After the disaster, you’ll want to be ready to handle damaged items when you return home. Quick action can prevent further damage. Create a Genealogy Disaster Kit and keep it with your stored genealogy items. It should include the following:

  • gloves and face masks (damaged items can pose potential health risks)
  • large plastic tubs
  • wax paper to interleave wet papers and photos, so they don’t stick together
    paper towels, clean rags or other blotting material
  • circulating fan to facilitate drying
  • large garbage bags
  • resealable plastic freezer bags for refrigerating or freezing wet photos
  • bottled water to rinse soiled items

Tips for handling damaged items are available at . If you need expert help to salvage or repair items, consult the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) for expert conservators.

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