Post-Sandy, what to toss, what to save

Ileana and Michael Marrone throws away water-soaked goods Ileana and Michael Marrone throws away water-soaked goods in their Copiague Harbor kitchen. The surge waters of superstorm sandy saturated their house in 2½ feet of water and left a thick layer of mud on their lawn. (Nov. 7, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

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When Michael Marrone drove to the beach to take a look at oncoming superstorm Sandy, he realized his Copiague Harbor residence was in for a hit.

Sure enough, he and his wife, Ileana, returned the next day after staying with friends to find their home filled with 2½ feet of water -- a surge that soaked furniture and appliances, drenched the walls, saturated clothing and left a thick layer of mud on their lawn.

What they didn't expect was the emotional punch that came with discovering how many personal treasures had been destroyed. Things like Michael's stamp and coin collection or, for his wife, the 40 pairs of shoes in her closet. They have yet to open a waterlogged box filled with family and vacation photos, but they know what they'll find.

"Those memories are gone," says Michael, 66, a client services manager for a communications firm.

This is a scene being played out everywhere in the storm's aftermath. The hard truth is that most of the contents in households like this will have to be discarded. But there is hope.

Here are some tips on how to salvage what you can -- if not from this storm, then ones in the future. Plus, some advice about how to get over your losses.

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Protect yourself

The first tip is to wear rubber or latex gloves and a protective mask, especially if dealing with mold that can cause illness.

Photos

"Photographs are part of our lives and ourselves," says James Reilly, director of the Image Permanence Institute at Rochester Institute of Technology. "People can't afford to lose them."

That's why you should always keep duplicates or negatives in a watertight container or stored at another location, Reilly says. Digital pictures, of course, can be preserved through an online service.

Otherwise, the key to saving wet photos is to move fast. The longer photos remain wet, the more likely they are to disintegrate or be lost to mold. Most photos can be retained after being in water for a few days, Reilly says, but ink jet prints are seldom retrievable if left wet more than 24 hours.

Here's what to do: Take the photos out of their album or any protective plastic sleeves, immerse them in cold, clean water and carefully wipe off any dirt with a damp cotton ball or soft cloth. Rinse with clean water, preferably distilled or purified. Place the photos between non-textured paper towels and replace them when they get wet.

An alternative is to air dry prints by hanging them on a clothesline, Reilly says. You can also lay them image side up on screened material to air out both sides. A fan can speed things along, but don't aim it directly at the photos. Once dry, most prints can be flattened by placing them under a weight.

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If you can't deal with photos within two days, put them in plastic bags and store them in the freezer to work on later. Whatever you do, Reilly says, don't let them stay wet too long and get moldy.

Furnishings, furniture and rugs

The microbial biodiversity of the sea makes it a great place for fish but not furniture.

"Anything porous covered by seawater is basically contaminated," says Rose Ann Martin,  who along with her husband, Brian, owns the Advanced Restoration Corp. in West Babylon, which helps people recover from fire loss, water damage, vandalism or other disasters.

This means that for sanitary and health reasons, pretty much all upholstered furniture and rugs along with mattresses and box springs in a flooded home will have to be abandoned, she says. Coffee tables or furniture made with wood can be cleaned but can expand and crack when drying, which means those items also may have to be thrown out.

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"If you could have driven down my street in West Islip last week, you would have seen the contents of every house out on the curb," Martin says.

Homeowners also should be careful to make sure their home is dry enough to move back into, Martin says. His company uses a mathematical equation to make sure enough fans and dehumidifiers have been spread around to dry a house out properly. Afterward, workers use a meter to make sure there is a safe moisture level in the building materials, Martin says.

Metal lawn furniture may be rinsed off and saved. A washing machine also can come in handy.

"Whatever you have left, if you can wash it with soap in a washing machine," Martin says, "it will probably be OK."

Computers, laptops and cellphones

Generally, people who have electronic gear submerged in water can kiss it goodbye, says Adam Aletkin, co-owner of Long Island Computer Repairs.Com in Uniondale.

The problem is that water creates high resistance points in electronics as well as corrosion, which causes more current than necessary to be drawn into a circuit, he says. That's why if you turn on a waterlogged electric motor, it typically runs, smokes, sputters and eventually fails, he says.

"It's like trying to squeeze three cars down a one-lane road all right next to each other."

Usually, a computer expert will take out the hard drive from a wet desktop or laptop and go over it carefully with a hot-air dryer or compressed air and then test it with an outside, external source, he says. If that doesn't work, data from the hard drive can still be retrieved, although by much more expensive means, Aletkin says. His company only charges customers if the retrieval is successful, he says.

The method he recommends for drying out a waterlogged cellphone is easy. Toss it into a bag of uncooked white rice for 48 hours, and cross your fingers.

"A lot of people have luck with that method," Aletkin says.

DVDs, CDs and tapes

The verdict is mixed for those worried about their DVD, CD and tape collections. Saltwater quickly degrades cassette tapes. Even if you open and clean them, chances are they have been destroyed. But unless DVDs and CDs have been submerged for days, they usually can be used again, says Anthony Cimaglia, a manager at Networks by Design Inc., a Long Island data retrieval firm.

First, wash off any debris, but don't rub it off because dirt and sand can scratch the surface, he says. Next, gently wipe it with isopropyl alcohol and dry with a clean microfiber cloth. You can also apply the kind of spray cleaner used for glasses and sunglasses. Disc cleaning solutions and repair kits are available at most music and electronics stores. But never use window cleaner, since it contains chemicals that can affect stored data and degrade the disc. Also, don't use too much pressure while wiping things down because data is stored on the physical top coating of DVDs and CDs, usually where the label is.

"A lot of people don't know that when they're pressing really hard on the top, they're killing data," says Cimaglia.

One trick: If you've cleaned the disc and want to burn a copy on your computer, lick the clear plastic bottom -- the part that goes down in a computer -- in a circular motion with your tongue. Saliva will temporarily fill in the scratches.

"It's kind of a backdoor fix," Cimaglia says.

Books and documents

Jane Long, a preservation program officer with the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., offers this advice for people gazing nervously at their pile of soaked books and documents: Calm down.

"If you're facing a roomful of boxes filled with papers or books, take a deep breath and figure out what to tackle first," she says. "You may not be able to save everything, so start with what's most important to you or your family."

Practice gentle triage, she says. Determine what items are the most badly damaged and start with those. If there is dirt or sand on the book, hold it tight to keep additional water from penetrating and rinse it off with clean, cold water.

If a book is really wet, lay it down and place paper towels inside about every 25 to 50 pages. Change them when they are saturated. If only slightly wet, stand the book on its end with the pages fanned open, once again placing papers towels among the pages.

Start a fan circulating the air, but not directly pointed at the book, and run a dehumidifier if you have one. Valuable art books with glossy pages are tricky, so consult an expert for that one.

Restoration advice

She recommended checking the Heritage Preservation website (heritagepreservation.org), which has a video for coping with water damage.

The American Institute for Conservation (conservation-us.org) can direct readers to other resources and provides a guide for selecting a conservator to handle more valuable objects.

National Archives and Records Administration also has a website with advice (archives.gov/preservation/records-emergency/public.html).

Long's suggestions for handling waterlogged documents are basically the same as with books. Select the most important ones first and place them in a small stack interspersed with paper towels. If a document is folded, dry it that way rather than risk opening and tearing it. The same goes for stuck-together papers. Both should come apart after they dry, Long says. Once the item is thoroughly dried, you can flatten pages by placing them under a weight.

Never use an oven, iron or blow dryer since they may also destroy the book or document.

"You need to approach this gently," she says.

Freezing books or documents until you can get to them later is a better option than letting them deteriorate. Wrap them in wax paper and place them loosely, spine down, in something like a ventilated box. And don't give up hope. "They might be wrinkled or stained, but they can be saved," Long says.

Stamp and coin collections

Sandy destroyed things everywhere -- even in places like Michael Marrone's safe, where he found his soaked collection of stamps and coins.

"I'd been saving them for 40 years, and now they're gone," he says. "That's depressing."

"Water is the worst thing followed by fire," says Dr. Leonard Cohen, a nonpracticing dentist and president of Marlen Stamp & Coins, Ltd., in Great Neck.

Common American stamps can be dried and used for postage, but their value as collector's items is gone, he says. Rarer stamps, both from the United States and worldwide, may be restored professionally, although their collector value could be diminished.

Don't try to salvage damaged stamps without a professional opinion, he says. Get ruined collections appraised for insurance purposes.

Rare coins can be salvaged and restored, but it might be costly. Silver and gold coins are always worth their intrinsic metal value.

He understands the discouragement. A friend in Massapequa had his lifetime coin and silverware collection ruined by Sandy and put it up for sale for whatever he could get. "He said he didn't want to look at another coin or piece of silver," Cohen says.

Don't get over it too soon

Probably the most common advice after a disaster like this is to deal with it and move on. After all, nobody -- in most cases -- was hurt, right?

Wrong, says Kathleen Dwyer-Blair, a licensed clinical social worker as well as director and owner of  Nassau Guidance and Counseling, a psychotherapy practice with offices throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties.

"This prolongs the grieving process," she says. "People deserve the time to grieve."

After all, she says, a household isn't just material goods -- it's a collection of memories and objects with personal history.

"People have been traumatized, and they need to go through the process -- denial, shock, anger, grief and depression before they reach the final stage of acceptance," she says. "It's no different from when someone close to you dies or when you get a divorce or lose a limb."

Don't suppress your feelings, she says. Cry as long as you want, get angry or even throw a tantrum. A loss of a home, or most of one's possessions, can even conjure up past traumas, leading to things like panic attacks or nightmares.

Realize it may take months or years to adjust. Share your feelings with a friend or relative who isn't going to rush you into a quick recovery. And consider professional counseling.

"If you allow the grieving process to happen naturally,'' says Dwyer-Blair, "a person will get to the place where they need to be."

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