15 Minutes to Evacuate! What about my Photos?

5 Steps to Backing up Family Photos:

Lets do a thought experiment. You are sitting at home and you receive a reverse 911 call telling you that you have 15 minutes to evacuate. You have 15 minutes to grab what you can. Your house may, or may not be standing when you return. At your disposal is your car that you can fill to the brim with important possessions as you flee. What’s on your list of things to pack into the car?

Glenwood Springs South Canyon Fire – 1994 – That’s not clouds, its smoke blocking out the sun. The fire was moving so fast up the valley it outran 14 firefighters that died that day.
(Kodak point and shoot film camera outside my house)

If you are like most people, family photos are in the top 5 items on your list. These are priceless memories that you probably can’t replace. Maybe all your photos are on your computer and you’ll grab that. Or are you covered because all your photos are on the cloud on your iPhone? Hummm, think harder, are all your family memories really on your phone?

“The fire had gone from almost nothing to out of control in a few hours… we surely didn’t know about the 14 firefighters that had just died as the fire outran them…”

I remember that summer day vividly. It was normal summer day, then all of a sudden I looked out the kitchen window and thought to myself that the sun was going behind the clouds. The sky continued to darken and then I looked down valley and knew something was seriously wrong. It looked like a nuclear bomb went off with a huge plum of smoke that encompassed the mountains and was quickly taking up all the blue sky. When I say mountains, we’re talking the rocky mountains in big sky country. The photo doesn’t give justice to the magnitude of the smoke plume that was covering up the sky. The Storm King fire had gone from almost nothing to out of control in a few hours, we didn’t know how far up-valley it would travel. We were not sure where it would stop and we surely didn’t know about the 14 firefighters that had just died as the fire outran them. We just just knew it was serious. For us, we had two cars and we started planning what to take and which direction to travel as we evacuated.

Now, lets extend the experiment one step further since most personal disasters don’t start with 15 minutes of warning. You wake up in the middle of the night to the smoke detectors going off. Its smoky, its real and you now you are lucky to get out of the house alive. There is no chance to bring anything with you other than your family and pets. Wow! You made it out alive. Now what about rebuilding your life? What about your memories?

Homemade Copy Stand.
Read my article to see if this technique can beat a cheap desktop scanner.

How do you backup your family photos? The cloud, hard drives or other Media? Are they digital or just waiting for a disaster? Me, I have a multi-pronged approach when it comes to family photos that I want to survive and pass-on to the next generation. I have included five steps you can take to help protects your photos. Some easy and some more complicated and costly. They all deal with having your photos digital.

As a final note, its not just disasters that cause you to loose photos. Some of its poor succession planning (meaning what happens when you die). I should know because I have less than 10 photos from my High School years. Why, because the photos were not distributed in a way to easily survive the death of my father and grandparents. All of it was lost due to having a poor family structure and no way to back anything up since it wasn’t digital. But don’t forget that once its digital its also just as easy to too loose everything.

Five things you can do to protect your photos for the future:

1. Take a photo of the pictures hanging on your walls with your phone
You probably don’t have all your important photos on your phone, you are missing the obvious ones that you have deemed most important by the fact you chose to hang the up in your home. Why are your family photos hanging in the walls in the first place? Phone photos won’t be the highest quality available, but its going to take you 10 minutes to accomplish this and you’ll get a copy of them in a place where they are digital with you and/or in the cloud. In the event of a disaster its better than having nothing at all. If you have tons of storage you can extend this to important albums. But taking photos on your phone is an easy backup solution that should take you less than 10 minutes.

2. Digitize your photos
New photos are being made digital, but its your family history from before digital photography existed that I’m talking about. Take the time to either self scan your photos or use a professional service. I know this is a big undertaking, but once you do it, you’re done. I used ScanCafe to economically scan over 150 roles of film. It was a nail-biter as I sent them out, but I have them digital now. I have applied everything in this article to those scanned photos of my personal history.

3.Backup your data
All hard drives fail, data corruption and accidents happen. I can’t tell you how many people I know who have lost everything simply because they never backed anything up. They meant to, but never got around to doing it. Once you are digital, back up your data. Your hard drive is going to fail, its not if it will fail, but when will it fail. Hard drives are cheap. Buy whats on sale and copy your data over now. See my article on backing up data.


4. Make sure you have an offsite backup
Leaving your backup in your home is just like the pictures hanging on your walls. You can loose everything if you leave your backups in your house. Your house can flood, a lightening strike can take out your computer, fire, tornado, lava, theft, you name it – its a big world and nature is unforgiving. You risk loosing your backup if you don’t have it in another location. Also don’t forget if a backup drive is plugged into the wall and lightening strikes you can loose both your primary and backup drive. If your backup drive is at home, at a minimum, make sure its completely unplugged and disconnected, but you really need an offsite backup. $100 will buy you close to 3terribytes in storage. Leave a drive at your parents or siblings house. Update it every once an a while.

5. Share your photos
Once you have digital photos and backups, distribute your photos to family and/or close friends. Send your brother, sister, mother, father or grandson a set of DVD’s, Blueray data disks or even a hard drive containing your entire collection. This is different than an offsite backup, even though it really is one. This is more about sharing and getting them to incorporate your collection into theirs. Show them how you organized your photos, find photos that they want to see and most importantly enjoy the time and memories with them as you look through them together. This is your succession plan to make sure your photo collection lives on. Leave them with this digital copy. Its not perfect, but chances are they will throw it in a drawer or add it to their own collection. In the event of your death, they will defacto become keeper of your family photos and will eventually distribute them going forward to your kids or important others. Every copy you have somewhere else is another chance your photos will continue on without you.



Optical Media Notes
Cheap optical media even though it has a limited life expectancy, is the best bet in the near-term of surviving you. Online backups are great for day to day use, but in reality if you don’t pay you don’t have a backup. Imagine the horror when your kids figure out that you had the photos backed up online, and they decide they want them, only to learn they were automatically deleted when no one paid the bill.

If you put them on a hard drive (since its super cheap and easy) consider the value of the device. If you are keeping your hard drive at work in your desk drawer, what happens if you die? What happens when your desk is cleaned out. Your external backup hard drive has value as raw storage to someone else. There is a reasonable chance even though you marked it as personal property, that someone is going to simply format it and use it for their own use.

Here is how you can help safeguard this scenario. With a set of burnt DVD disks clearly mark “your name” and “Family Photos”, they intrinsically only have value to only your family. The DVD’s are already burnt and can’t be used again. The odds are much better these will work their way back to you or your loved ones. DVD’s are also immune to crypto virus that encrypt your data and extort you to get it unencrypted.

There are also a few options for long life optical media. CD’s and DVD’s include Gold Archival DVD’s and a new disk called a M-DISC, which claims to have a 1000 year life expectancy and is readable in a regular DVD player. BlueRay also has archival media rated at 200 years. You will need a DVD burner that supports some of these disk types, but it’s an option.


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