By Beth Bilderback
It seems like yesterday, when the rains came upon Columbia and left devastation in their wake. And although it has been over a year now, many people are still dealing with the loss of property and life. I was one of the fortunate ones as my house sits on a high spot in Columbia, so I spent the first couple of days watching the flood scenes played over and over on the television, thinking I should be doing something. Then my neighbor provided me with the perfect opportunity to use my professional expertise to help people in real need.
What we found in one Columbia neighborhood where the water reached the tops of some homes, was played out in several areas. People were in shock; they saw everything as a total loss, and piled it on the streets. People were in shock, and there was no potable water in the city. And this is where most of my disaster training was turned on its head.
We train to take care of our own collections or to help other cultural institutions, so there is a mutual understanding of caring for materials. But that understanding was lacking when we went to help. Most people don’t give much thought to preservation in the best of times, and this was definitely not a good time. And as we walked around offering to salvage photographs, we found amazement that such a thing could be done followed by gratitude that something could be saved. We started small but quickly found more volunteers.
We started the salvage work in the neighborhood, not only to promote visually what we were doing but so victims could see their photographs were still there. As more rains came and the number of collections grew, we worked in our homes and in churches. We could not follow the strict guidelines set forth in most preservation training programs due to various conditions, but we saved almost 5,000 photographs, slides, negatives and artwork for people who had lost everything else. If you want to read more about my experiences, please see the Fall 2015 issue of Caroliniana Columns http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/columns/38/