Herman: Smithsonian staff helps Harvey victims save family treasures

The big problems caused by Hurricane Harvey are still plain to see along Texas 35 in storm-ravaged, still-recovering Rockport. The crumpled buildings, boarded windows, tarp-topped houses and workers clearing debris and replacing utility poles are hard to miss.

Table after table at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s State Disaster Recovery Center — a tent in the parking lot of an abandoned (pre-Harvey) H-E-B — offer myriad services survivors need as they work to put their lives back together.

Here’s the Small Business Administration table. Over there is a long line of “applicant services processing specialists.” Here’s the Texas Department of Insurance. There’s a FEMA “mitigation” banner with this forward-looking, if fatalistic, reminder: “Rebuilding safer and stronger. Reduce your risk from future disasters.”

And back in a corner is a table sporting the familiar-to-many sunburst logo of the Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian? At a disaster scene?

Yes. The Smithsonian runs museums. And everybody lives in a museum — very personal museums chronicling a family’s history — often amassed (OK, maybe overamassed in some homes) over years and generations.

When a storm like Harvey hits, each of those museums heartbreakingly loses portions of their collections. In some cases, entire collections.

That’s why Carrie Feldman and Emily Pearce Seigerman, armed with welcoming smiles and helpful expertise, were standing behind a table displaying Q-Tips, Mr. Clean Premium Reusable Wipes, a paint roller, pipe insulation and a variety of other supplies they can use to show you how to stabilize storm-damaged photos, books and textiles until they can be brought to a professional for restoration.

“After the Flood: Advice for Salvaging Family Treasures,” says a fact sheet on the table.

Feldman works at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Pearce Seigerman works at the Smithsonian’s National Numismatic Collection. They both have master’s degrees in museum studies. They’re from the federal government, and they’re here to help.

The effort is part of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force, a coalition of 42 federal agencies and national service organizations. Their aprons carry this reminder: “Culture Cannot Wait! First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis.”

“After you have food, you have water, your family is safe, you’re going to start trying to rebuild your life,” Pearce Seigerman said. “So that can mean trying to salvage your wedding album. You’re trying to salvage objects your grandparents gave you. Things that you find your identity in. So we’re demonstrating some simple techniques with materials you can get at local hardware stores to make your items stable. And when they’re stable, after things have settled and life resumes, you can bring them to professional conservators, and they’ll make them as close to new as possible.”

As they set up in Rockport as part of a three-day swing that also includes Robstown and Victoria, Feldman knew what she’d hear most about: photos.

“Because that’s the thing I think hurts the most, losing precious memories,” Feldman said.

Sam and Danielle Sowell, and their 4-year-old daughter Elizabeth, were the first to visit the Smithsonian table in Rockport. They listened to the preservation advice. Afterwards, choking up at times, Danielle talked about what they want to salvage.

The Sowells also have two sons, ages 8 and 6, and Danielle is most concerned about the mucked-up photos that were in the house in which the family used to live, she told me: “I lost all of them.”

Or at least she thought she had. Her husband, a construction worker, had come across them as they were throwing away almost everything they owned.

“They’re stuck together and moldy and nasty,” she said of the photos.

But now, with the advice from the Smithsonian staffers (a soaking in deionized water — distilled water also works — is the best way to separate stuck-together photos), she’s encouraged they can be saved.

“They mean a lot. They’re my kids when they were born. My wedding day,” she said. “I mean my entire life is in my pictures. It’s everything.”

As the Sowells, and so many like them, navigate a challenging and uncertain future, let’s all root for the restoration of their pictures.

Like so many hurricane victims, the future for the Sowells is uncertain. They’re entitled to the immeasurable comfort derived from salvaging photos of their past.

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