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Smithsonian conservator helps people save important belongings ravaged by Hurricane Ian

 FEMA Reservist Tonya Blades on left, Gwen Manthey, Smithsonian Conservator on right.
Courtesy of Gwen Manthey
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FEMA Reservist Tonya Blades on left, Gwen Manthey, Smithsonian Conservator on right.

In an emergency like Hurricane Ian, the priority after the storm is always saving lives.

But once that’s done, there are things to be saved.

Gwen Manthey is a fine arts conservator for the Smithsonian Institution. She’s been working on-site at a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center in Lee County, at Lakes Regional Library in Fort Myers, helping people salvage their important objects.

“I just stepped away from a woman who was actually able to recover a part of her parents’ wedding serveware, as well as her baby spoon that washed up on a beach not too far from their home,” Manthey said.

 Blue-gloved hands hold silver ware damaged by Hurricane Ian.
Courtesy of Gwen Manthey, Smithsonian Institute
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Blue-gloved hands hold silver ware damaged by Hurricane Ian.

She said that same woman recovered her husband’s lost wedding ring, which was found in a pile of debris and restored to her through a community Facebook page.

Manthey has lived in disaster-prone places like Illinois and Texas. She said precious heirlooms should be put into watertight containers and kept up high on shelves in Florida, since water is so much a part of the disaster equation here.

“Especially textiles, grandmother's quilts, photo albums, family Bibles, those are the things that can be damaged the most with water,” she said.

But the last place you want to store important belongings is in the attic.

“Roofs are the first things that are damaged when a tree falls down and water penetrates that home. So choosing that right type of container to put these things in, as well as the backing up of those documents, is key,” according to Manthey.

Manthey said time is of the essence when working to save important objects. And you must prioritize which things are most important to you.

Here are some ways to salvage items damaged by water:

  1. Prioritize: You may not be able to save everything, so focus on what’s most important to you, whether for historic, monetary, or sentimental reasons.

  • Create Space: Spreading things out to dry takes up a lot of space! Be creative: gently clip photos to clotheslines, create a drying hammock out of plastic porch screen taped between two chairs, close the gaps in a drying rack with tulle or wrap the bars with pipe insulation for extra support.
  • Handle with Care: Use great caution in handling your heirlooms, which can be especially fragile when wet.
  • Manthey said she's grateful for everyone who has made this Save Your Family Treasures effort possible.

    She thanked the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative and Lori Foley of The Heritage Emergency National Task Force, for “having the vision to set this up.” She also thanked FEMA and its people, Indelible SBA and The Lakes Regional Library for hosting them.

    While her work has principally involved art works identified as American, Manthey said "she is working with the Smithsonian cultural rescue initiative to train individuals on how to handle these objects, and was asked to participate with the Army monuments officers training as well, this new generation of Monuments Men who are going into areas of combat to help preserve artifacts of cultures that are not our own."

    HENTF experts will be available to assist survivors through Nov. 20 at Disaster Recovery Centers. Here’s the schedule:

    • Lee County: Lakes Regional Library, 15290 Bass Road, Fort Myers, FL 33908

    • Now – Friday, Nov. 11. Hours: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

  • Saturday, Nov. 12 – Sunday, Nov. 20. Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
  • Lee County: Lake Kennedy Center, 400 Santa Barbara Blvd., Cape Coral, Fort Myers, FL 33901

    • Now – Friday, Nov. 11. Hours: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

  • Saturday, Nov. 12 – Sunday, Nov. 20. Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
  • Sarasota County: Shannon Staub Public Library, 4675 Career Lane, North Port, FL 34289

    • Now – Friday, Nov. 11. Hours: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

  • Saturday, Nov. 12 – Sunday, Nov. 20. Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
  • Collier County: Veteran’s Community Park, 1895 Veteran’s Park Drive, Naples, FL 34109

    • Now – Friday, Nov. 11. Hours: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

  • Saturday, Nov. 12 – Sunday, Nov. 20. Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
  • Charlotte County: Tringali Rec Center, 3450 North Access Road, Englewood, FL 34224

    • Now – Friday, Nov. 11. Hours: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

  • Saturday, Nov. 12 – Sunday, Nov. 20. Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
  • Manatee County: John Marble Park, 3675 53rd Ave East, Bradenton, FL 34203

    • Now – Friday, Nov. 11. Hours: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

  • Saturday, Nov. 12 – Sunday, Nov. 20. Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
  • Copyright 2022 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7.

    Susan Giles Wantuck is our midday news host, and a producer and reporter for WUSF Public Media who focuses her storytelling on arts, culture and history.