An Eye in A Hurricane: Documenting Disasters as Family Memories

Genealogy educator Thomas MacEntee offers advice on documenting loss and survival during disasters and how the stories impact our family history

The recent disasters of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma brought my own memories of Hurricane Agnes in June, 1972. I was not yet 10 years old, living at home in upstate New York. I remember one of the local bridges was washed out and that in Sullivan County we didn’t have as much damage as cities like Binghamton and Elmira farther north of our location. I also remember being fixated with the news articles and television coverage of what, at that time, was the costliest hurricane in the US in terms of damage. There were a total of 119 deaths across the United States and the cost was $2.1 billion (in 1972 dollars = $12.36 billion in 2017 dollars).

Years later I lived in San Francisco, California and survived the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989 (I was on the 38th floor of a downtown office building and thought for sure I would not make it). In 1991 I witnessed the Oakland Hills fires with many friends and co-workers losing everything including family photos and heirlooms.

At this point, I realize I’ve never written down what I remember about any of these events nor have I really discussed them with family members. Is documenting a disaster really that important? And, is it appropriate to do so?

Why Documenting Disasters is Important

Any genealogist or family historian who has found a personal account of a disaster understands the value of such information. For example, in September 1900 a devastating hurricane hit Galveston, Texas resulting in over 6,500 lives lost. Click here to read a personal account – Galveston and the Great Storm of 1900 – to get a sense of how a disaster can be documented.

Another more recent example, is the way in which Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was documented for future generations. At the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank ( you can read personal accounts as well as view images and video recordings of survival and loss in New Orleans and other locations impacted by the disaster.

Here is why you might consider documenting a disaster, whether you were a direct participant or merely a witness:

  • Documenting loss of property. For insurance purposes it is always better to document contents prior to a loss, but many times we need to create an inventory of what was lost after the fact. In addition, if we only have a photo of a lost heirloom or record, we may want to supplement that with a “backstory” in order to build a more credible source for research purposes.
  • Documenting loss of life. More importantly, we should tell the story of how someone died during a disaster. Keep in mind, that for posterity sake, a death certificate won’t necessarily mention the disaster, just a cause of death. And many times a victim will linger for week or even years and die as a result of an ailment or condition caused by the disaster. How many times have you searched a death date for an ancestor only to realize it coincided with a disaster?
  • Documenting migration patterns. As evident during Hurricane Katrina, a massive migration from the New Orleans area took place, with victims settling in Houston, Texas and as far away as San Diego, California. Again, tell the story of why your family picked up and moved to a new location. What did such a move mean to the family? What were the benefits as well as the down sides?
  • Documenting stories of survival. For me, this is the most important area of documenting a disaster. I am here today only for the survival instincts of many of my ancestors in the face of war, natural disaster and other calamities. These stories then become cherished heirlooms passed down along the generations.

Documenting Disasters: Do’s and Don’ts

While not wanting to draw a line as to a specific “way” to document a disaster, keep in mind that there are many facets involved so care should be taken in your approach:

  • DO: Write your story about the disaster. Write it from your perspective if you were a personal witness to the disaster, its causes and aftermath.
  • DON’T: Feel the need to document right away. The first priority is making sure that you and your family are safe. Then focus on recovery. If you are worried that you won’t remember details, use a notepad or mobile device to take notes.
  • DO: Gather information including interviews and documentation. Make sure you add different perspectives, if possible. Include first responders, survivors, long-distance witnesses and other participants.
  • DON’T: Force family members and others to provide information and their perspective. Don’t assume that a survivor is ready to discuss a disaster. Work with their timeline of recovery and make sure they feel comfortable with any interview. Allow them to review what you’ve documented and solicit their input.
  • DO: Follow local rules in terms of curfew, access, and safety. Many times there are still recovery and rebuilding efforts going on at a disaster site. Your documentation efforts should take a back seat to these activities.
  • DON’T: Be insensitive. During a recent London apartment fire where close to 100 died, several people were seen taking “selfies” while the building burned. Consider the real value of that photo and how your time could have been better spent helping with recovery efforts.

Protect Your Family Photos, Stories and Heirlooms NOW!

The Genealogy Do-Over - Month 7 Topics: 1) Reviewing Genealogy Database Software and 2) Digitizing Photos and Documents

Click HERE to see a recent post on ways you can preserve and protect various family photos, stories and heirlooms.


As family historians not all the stories we document have happy endings. But even stories about disasters are part of how we lived and become a part of what we pass on to our descendants. These events deserve your research and documenting skills, but require a different approach than typical genealogical research.

References and Resources

©2017, copyright Thomas MacEntee. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Thomas MacEntee
Genealogy educator and author Thomas MacEntee has been researching his family history for more than 40 years and is the creator of Abundant Genealogy, Genealogy Bargains, DNA Bargains, The Genealogy Do-Over and numerous other web-based genealogy and family history properties.

1 Comment on "An Eye in A Hurricane: Documenting Disasters as Family Memories"

  1. I live in the south. My sons were in 5th and 9th grades on Sept. 11, 2001. I asked them to write their perspective on the events. One of my most prized possessions is a personal account by my great-uncle who was on the shore when a hurricane struck and assisted saving men from a shipwreck.

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