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How to Keep Your Photos Safe From Natural Disasters

Updated: Mar 29

Box of old family photo prints.

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Thanks to natural disasters, many Americans have not had an easy start to 2023.

With record-breaking rainfall in California, nearly 20 million people were under flood alert in mid-January, and early estimates of property damage numbered in the billions. California has been living under drought conditions, so recent flooding caught many homeowners and renters unaware, as only about 2% of Californians hold flood insurance.

Sadly, California is not the only state grappling with the frequency and intensity of natural disasters. From extreme drought-fueled fires in the west, soaring temps, and flash flooding in the midwest, to hurricanes in the east, there is more cause than ever to be concerned about protecting our property.

While structures have the potential to be rebuilt, there are some assets that once lost, can never be replaced: namely, your family's photo collection.

Considering the Emotional Toll of Natural Disasters

When facing the reality of recovering from the effects of natural disasters, the pure stress and emotional toil are nothing short of intense. Fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, you name it - they can all be devastating, destroying anything and everything in their path without remorse.

Of course, the top priority in these disasters is the safety and well-being of our loved ones. But for many, the next biggest concern is oftentimes our memories. Have you ever considered what it would feel like to lose all of your family's photos?

Photographer Randy Taylor learned this the hard way when his archive of photographs from more than forty years working as a professional in the field was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the Atlantic coast in 2012. Flooding destroyed nearly 30,000 images in Taylor’s storage facility. In response to this devastating loss, Taylor is quoted saying, “I feel like I’ve failed my ancestors.”

The good news is that your photos do not need to be lost forever due to the ravages of our new climate reality. With the aid of technology, you can protect your photo legacy so that your images can be enjoyed for generations to come.

If you are unsure where to start, we have a few suggestions for steps you can focus on now to help prepare and safeguard your photos before disaster strikes.

Reduce the Risk of Loss From Natural Disasters

1. Minimize Your Photo Clutter

2. Consolidate and Protect Your Collection

#1. Minimize Your Photo Clutter

We know we harp on this a lot, but your first task in photo preservation should be paring down your collection to only your best images. Let’s face it: almost all of us have more photos than we need or can even begin to enjoy.

Photo excess is an even bigger problem in your digital library since the ease of taking and storing images has caused an explosion in the number of extraneous images clogging up hard drives and internal smartphone storage. Do you really need a dozen low-quality prints of the trees on your family’s summer road trip?

If you haven’t already, now is the time to remove duplicates, low-quality images, and duds from your camera roll or digital photo library, moving you closer to a better-curated, inheritance-worthy collection.

Plus, as an added bonus, reducing the photo clutter in your digital library can help you save precious dollars in online storage space each month.

This can be time-consuming and daunting, especially if you’ve let your photos get out of hand (no shame, it's hard not to these days). Luckily, there are helpful tools available to you, including software programs, trained photo-organizing professionals, apps, and even certain features built into your photo management system.

For example, did you know that with its most recent iOS update, Apple Photos launched a new duplicate detection feature on iPhone? They've made the process a little less painful for their users, as it's now possible to merge duplicates in your iPhone camera roll with just a few clicks.

Mylio Photos is another one of our favorite photo management systems offering this type of built-in duplicate detection feature, without the need for downloading a third-party app.

While sorting through the best photos and removing duds remains a tedious process, one you have to intentionally set aside time for, more and more resources are becoming available to help make the process as painless as possible. By taking the time to reduce photo clutter in your digital library, you'll minimize the overwhelm when it's time to move on to the next step: consolidating all your photos into one place.

It's important to note that you will likely have to move through the decluttering process again in phase #2. Once you've consolidated photos from your various sources and devices, there are sure to be additional throw-outs. We recommend not only deleting the duds as they appear but also doing a final scan once your collection is loaded into your cloud-based photo management system, which will likely offer helpful features for locating low-quality images or duplicates.

#2. Consolidate and Protect Your Collection

Most of us have photos in what seems like everywhere - scattered across multiple hard drives, old phones, laptops, boxes of old prints sitting in the basement... the list goes on.

We believe the first thing you must do to safeguard your photos is to consolidate them into one place. That means finding your photos across all of the digital and physical sources where they might be hiding.

It's the step we all dread: the gathering phase. It's crucial, but it can be so overwhelming that we often find ourselves avoiding the task altogether.

But it doesn't have to be that way! We've put together a free checklist that includes all the most common places we've discovered our clients' photos. It's designed to help you locate your own long-lost photos as you begin consolidating, which is key to making sure you don't miss anything when moving forward with your project.

Once you've found all your photos, it's time to pull them all together into one central location, like an external hard drive. You'll need to move through this process using a desktop computer.

Digital photo files organized into a folder structure.

Photos living on digital sources: The process of moving these files into a centralized location will be easier, as they are already digital and accessible from your desktop. You'll simply need to download or export the files from whatever platform they are currently residing in (ex. Shutterfly, Google Drive, etc.) and save them to your desktop or downloads folder. You can drag and drop the exported folder or files from there onto your external drive.

You'll want to make sure to label the subfolder from each digital source with a relevant title to keep everything tidy and easily accessible.

Photos living on physical sources: Extra steps and tools may be required to migrate these files to your central location, such as transfer cables and adapters. Depending on whether you're extracting files from flash drives, SD cards, old devices, or DVDs, the items needed will vary. Typically, a quick Google search can provide the tools needed and the best process for transfer, depending on the source you're working with (ex: how to transfer photo files from an SD card to an external hard drive using MacBook Pro 2019).

Again, make sure to label the subfolder from each physical source with a relevant title.

Printed photos and old family albums:

You'll need to scan and create digital copies of each picture, even if you plan to keep your original prints or albums. Digitizing is a necessary step in protecting your collection from loss; if your photo prints are damaged or destroyed, you still have digital copies to share and pass along to future generations.

SurroundUs scanning specialist digitizing photos.

At SurroundUs, we've seen firsthand how taking this crucial step can alleviate the burden for our clients and help them rest easier knowing their family photos are safe in case disaster strikes. Imagine the relief of knowing that even if your home and belongings have been damaged or destroyed, your memories are one thing you don't have to fear losing.

If you have physical albums, and boxes of prints in your home that you want to keep, you’ll want to take steps to protect them from possible water damage in the case of a flood. Wrapping your photos in plastic, or storing them in ziplock baggies is one line of defense. Experts also advise storing these items on higher ground, whenever possible, such as in an attic or a high shelf.

If all else fails and your printed photos still get wet, there are ways to possibly recover them, depending on the level of damage. Check out this video from SurroundUs Brand Partner, Clicking with Kristen, as she offers helpful water-damage recovery tips.

Once photos are consolidated into one place:

After all of your photos have been gathered, scanned, and consolidated into one central location, like your external hard drive, the final step in safeguarding them from loss or damage is to load a copy of your entire collection into a cloud-based photo management system, like Apple Photos, Google Photos,