When Disaster Strikes Part 3: Preparing Your Family Treasures for the Worst

Rachael Woody

February 18, 2021
woman writing

In part 1 and part 2 of this miniseries, we’ve run through the emotional logistics needed in order to prepare our mindset for handling a disaster, it’s time for us to layout a plan for how to mitigate the loss of family treasures. This post in the When Disaster Strikes miniseries will offer a checklist of things to think about and steps to take for before, during, and after a disaster.

The more you can do to prepare your family treasures for a disaster before it strikes, the better off you’ll be. However, we don’t always have the luxury of time or foresight. With this in mind, I’ve broken up the steps into three distinct time periods: before a disaster, during a disaster, and after disaster.

Before a Disaster

Before a disaster is the time period in between you and the disaster that may destroy your family treasures. The more actions you can proactively take during this time will allow you to save more of your family treasurers and it will decrease the stress you will feel during the disaster event.

Physical Family Treasures Checklist:
  • Find and gather all of your family treasures in one physical location.
  • Purchase heavy duty boxes that are archival-safe and water-resistant.
  • Purchase a fire-proof safe and/or document bag in which to place your most important and irreplaceable items and documents. 
  • Arrange the contents into categories that would allow you to prioritize at the box-level which boxes will need to be evacuated and which can remain.
  • Prioritize the boxes (based on their content) into two basic categories: Evacuate and Remain. Using the family treasure checklist in the previous post we can see the usual priority items to consider:
    • Important documents such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, wills, and other legal documents.
    • A selection of family photographs that aren’t born-digital and haven’t been digitized.
    • Mementos from your life that hold profound personal meaning—such as the item revealed during the 1 Item Thought Experiment.
  • Use colored boxes or find a way to provide a quick visual indication of which boxes are the most important in the event of a disaster.
  • Make sure important boxes are up front and easy to grab during an emergency.
  • Label all boxes with a general account of contents.
  • For important family documents consider scanning these items and storing them on a portable device (USB, portable hard-drive) and/or sync them to an online platform that can store your digital items in the cloud.
Digital Family Treasures Checklist:
  • Find and gather all of your digital family treasures for assessment.
  • Determine where these digital items live: are they on your computer locally or are they saved and backed up with a cloud platform?
  • If you don’t already use an online platform to store your digital family treasures it’s time to find and implement one. There are many options from free to moderate cost. For example: Google Drive, Dropbox, or Permanent.org.
  • Arrange the digital files in a way that makes sense to you and your family in the event they need to be accessed quickly. 
  • Use obvious and consistent labeling of your digital file names and folders to facilitate easy and accurate storage and retrieval of your digital files.
  • If you’re using a USB and/or portable hard-drive device, make sure they are physically placed near an exit so that you can grab them on your way out of the house during an emergency.

The more you can organize, arrange, prioritize, label, and digitally prepare your family treasurers the more you’ll be able to save in the event of a disaster. Additionally, this preparation will allow you focus to stay on keeping your family safe during a disaster and grant you peace of mind because your family treasures are safe.

During a Disaster

This phase of the disaster will cause stress and will limit your mental capacity to fight or flight thinking. It will be difficult for you to concentrate and you will feel fear and uncertainty. Prioritize your health and safety first, and assemble your family, pets, and prescriptions. Then, if you have time and you are following all safety recommendations issued by the authorities, begin to evacuate your priority boxes and portable storage drives.

Checklist (in priority order):
  • People and pets
  • Medicines and other medical or safety items
  • Water, food, clothes, and blankets
  • Any other safety equipment or items to help make your family more comfortable
  • Priority boxes and storage drives that contain your priority family items

After a Disaster

The disaster is now over and it’s time to see what’s salvageable. If you have a home to return to, but your family treasures experienced some degree of damage then there are a few options available to you.

Post-Disaster Checklist:
  • Are there family treasures that were destroyed, but can be replaced by either creating them again or by using the digital images you took to recreate them?
  • Are there family treasures you didn’t digitize and can’t make again, but the originals may still be salvageable? If so, find a document recovery specialist near you.
Supply List

In this post I mentioned a few items you’ll need to acquire in order to prepare your family treasures for surviving a disaster. Here’s a quick recap to use for your shopping list:

  • Fire and waterproof document satchel
  • Fire and waterproof safe
  • USB, portable hard-drive, or similar
  • A platform that provides cloud storage for digital backups to live 
  • Sturdy, water-resistant boxes to store family treasures
  • A “go bag” for possessions
  • A scanner or scanning service to scan irreplaceable documents and photographs


While we can never fully prepare for a disaster, with a little preparation we can mitigate our losses. As Benjamin Franklin said to his fellow Philadelphians threatened by fire in 1736, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The more we can do now to prepare for an eventual disaster the better off we’ll be—both in terms of safety as well as in protecting our irreplaceable family treasures.

About the Author

Rachael Cristine Woody is the owner of Rachael Cristine Consulting, a firm that provides services to archives, museums, and cultural heritage organizations. Rachael holds an MSLIS with a concentration in archives management, and more than 10 years of experience in history organizations — including the Smithsonian Institution and the Oregon Wine History Archive.