Researching Family History: The sadness that comes from lost or ruined photos and documents — and the resolution

By Russell Bangerter, For the Deseret News

Published: Wed, Aug. 20, 2014, 4:35 p.m. MDT

 A home is destroyed by a slide in North Salt Lake, Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014.

A home is destroyed by a slide in North Salt Lake, Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014.

(Ravell Call, Deseret News)

Note the words of David Utrilla, son of Eguardo and Elena Utrilla, who lost their home in a landslide in North Salt Lake on Aug. 5, as quoted in the Deseret News: "There are a lot of (photographs), journals, things that have passed from one generation to another, that are material of course, but you can't replace that. Everything they have is buried in there."

During that same week, day after day, relentless downpours of rain continued to pound hillsides and valleys in northern and eastern Utah. In North Salt Lake, the ground became saturated and eventually, a chunk of the hillside measuring some 400 feet by 400 feet and 20 feet deep carved out, causing the earth and mud to move. Some huge boulders budged in its wake, and the landslide slammed into the back of the Utrilla home. The impact pushed the home off its foundation, tearing out walls, breaking windows and toppling the house. Fortunately, three nearby homes were not damaged.

Sue Williams, a resident of Helper, made the following comment in a Deseret News article about the flooding in her Carbon County area: "I've never seen anything like this. Everything of my great-grand kids', my granddaughters' — all of it is downstairs. It's nothing but floating. There's nothing but mud."

Record downpours over short periods of time caused severe flooding in Helper. Clean-up crews cleared mud and debris from streets and about 75 homes there.

Evacuated from their basement home in Washington Terrace, just south of Ogden, an elderly couple went to a community center and visited with Red Cross representatives. Ten homes sustained minimal to moderate damage. City storm drains were not able to keep up with the rapid downpour, city officials said at the time.

After these incidents, we thank our Heavenly Father that no lives were lost or major injuries reported. Our hearts and prayers go out to the Utrilla family which lost their home, photographs, journals, etc., to the landslide; as well as others such as the Williams family, which probably lost photos and family records as well.

In emergency cases like these, after meeting the first priority to get everyone to safety, consider whether there is time to grab the photos, family records and computer. Putting these things together in a secure place, where you have immediate access to grab and exit, prevent lot of sorrow in the end.

Escape plans mapped out by family members when things are calm and quiet allows everyone to think through the process before the pandemonium that follows when calamity strikes. If everyone knows ahead of time where they need to go, they can exit calmly, efficiently and orderly.

Copying photos, family records and histories and other documents onto a DVD or CD and sending it to a relative at a different location can help ensure important documents will not be lost during unexpected calamities. Putting them in a safe deposit box can also be helpful. Backing up computer information with e-books is also a good way to go. A family history consultant or researcher can help put together a plan ahead of time if you don't have the time.

Another option is storing photos and histories on the Family Tree account for safe-keeping. Contact your local ward family history consultant for help on that.

When people prepare, it helps lessen the fear factor in their lives should something happen. It's often not a matter of if, but when trouble will come. If done prayerfully and carefully, the Lord will help see people through such events and they can jump into action because they know where the most important things are to evacuate.

It has been two weeks since the flooding and landslide came to northern and eastern Utah. I hear on the weather that St. George received about three inches of rain earlier this week and others points in southern Utah also received heavy amounts of rain. I hope and pray that people there have been able to avoid destruction of their home, and keep their photos and family records.

Utrilla is correct when he stated, "You can't replace that." So why not begin now to think these things through and make a plan for escape, and a plan for preserving and storing photos, family records and computer backups? You'll be glad you did.

Genealogy graduate Russell Bangerter is president of Ancestral Connections, Inc., at ancestralconnect.com. He is a professional genealogist, author and speaker; and adviser to Treasured Souls to Keep, at treasuredsoulstokeep.com.

1. utahprincipal801
Sandy, UT,
Aug. 20, 2014

Consider buying Millenial ceramic disks that can be read on any hard drive and purchasing a disk driver that will burn them. They have a very long shelf life (100+ years). I purchased a disk drive that will do this ($90) and the disks are about $3 a piece now. I am currently scanning family photos, letters and histories and plan to give a ceramic disk to family members for safe keeping. It just takes one disaster to erase family treasures forever.

2. GeoMan
Aug. 21, 2014

There is still special significance to the actual artifacts and they should be cared for and protected as the treasures that they are. No artifact lasts forever, but the wonder of the digital age is that one can easily create a digital facsimile(s) of an artifact and the facsimile can be reproduced and copied flawlessly forever. Preserving the digital copy in an accessible format requires sustained stewardship, but stewardship is a blessing that gives the object meaning.
Currently it is essentially free to store digital information in a large number of places. This column mentions a few important ones (e.g. familysearch.org). Many large corporations currently offer online storage for free.
There are numerous methods and services available to create the digital facsimiles. If nothing else, most already own a digital camera. If not, one can buy a $10 no-contract phone (on sale) that includes a digital camera designed for close-up images. One can simply snap pictures of objects or pages.
Preserve those treasured artifacts as long as you can, but begin now to prepared for the day when the artifact itself crumbles to dust. It may be sooner than you expect.

3. haloueen
Washington, UT,
Aug. 21, 2014

I like all these ideas and will add one more. Save your digitized photos and computer documents to the Cloud. I just recently began doing so. Of course, it must be on your computer in order to do so.

4. Don37
Nottingham, MD,
Aug. 22, 2014

The first backup system I used for a computer was a cassette on a household recorder. Then went to 5 1/2 inch floppies, then to 3 1/2 inch floppies. Around that time some used 8 inch disc backups or 3/4 inch tape drives. This over a span of nearly 50 years. One would be very hard pressed to find machines which would read some of those backup media today. Moral, no matter how up to date a backup system is, when you upgrade your computer, be ready to copy all important images and documents from the old media to the new one. The more stuff you have the longer this will take, although transfer rates are very fast now.