Hurricane Katrina ripped through thousands of homes earlier this week, destroying everything it could. Now people who are lucky enough to have made it safely through the storm and its aftermath are wondering how many -- if any -- of their possessions they can save.
Some are returning to their ravaged homes for the first time since Katrina struck, while others never left. In all cases, survivors are facing a huge mess.
In attempts to salvage belongings, use common sense and follow all emergency rules, laws and regulations, says Scott Spencer, worldwide appraisal manager for Chubb Personal Insurance.
"Saving your home and personal possessions, no matter how important, is not worth losing your life or risking permanent injury," he cautions.
At first, those surveying the damage in their homes may be struck by how much they have to throw away, rather than by what they can save. As FEMA recommends, discard waterlogged furniture and mattresses that can't be cleaned. But, if possible, before you get rid of anything, document it for insurance purposes, Spencer says.
Try to photograph or videotape the structural damage and inventory contents of your home. If you're getting rid of upholstery or rugs, try to save a sample of the material. Do the same with wall moldings and wallpaper. Any documentation will help you make your insurance claim, Spencer said.
"It will help you remember what existed in your house so you can tell the insurance company what you lost. It's amazing how after an event like this it can be so difficult to remember what sat between the chairs in your living room," he said.
Instead of despairing at the damage, try to focus on which sentimental items you can save. Often you can salvage water-damaged birth certificates, wedding albums, artwork and collectibles with surprisingly good results. Time is of the essence, here, so don't delay.
"Start with the area that has been damaged by water the least. You'll have the best chance of success there," Spencer said.
Spencer offers these tips for saving waterlogged possessions:
For your paper-based items, the idea is to remove the surface water and then let them air dry -- preferably in a cool, dry room that has good air circulation. Set up slow box fans to keep the air moving and prevent mildew growth, Spencer says. Items that came in contact with dirty water can always be washed with cold water, but don't use heat to dry any of them.
Birth Certificates, Deeds and Passports: Lay them out on absorbent paper.
Photographs: Remove photos from frames immediately when still wet, but do not wipe, touch or try to blot the photos. If the photos were damaged by dirty water, rinse them gently with clean cold water in a tub or sink (photo side up). Then place them on paper towels, again face up. Never stack drying photographs or they will stick together.
Wedding Albums: Place wax paper between each page. Alternately expose each page to the air until the album is mostly dry.
Paintings: Do not touch the painting's surface or remove the painting from its frame. Keep the painting face up in a horizontal position, especially if it is flaking.
Loose Papers: Spread them out on a paper towel, which will absorb excess moisture.
Books: Stand damp books with their spines facing up, supported by their covers slightly apart and pages fanned and hanging. Fan the pages every few hours. When mostly dry, lay the books down and make a stack with cooking parchment paper separating each book so they dry flat.