Recording memories for future generations

Union Beach, NJ: Hurricane Sandy Photo Recovery

Photos are the memory keepers of our personal histories. They are reminders of a life lived. They open the gates of our memories and serve as placeholders for the next generations of family stories. Those personal stories are our real inheritance.


When Mother Nature shakes her angry hand and disaster strikes our homes, those family photos and heirlooms are the first things that people look for in the remains of their household.


One Union Beach resident sifted through the photos we were trying to restore and found the only photo that exists from her home of her eight-year-old son.

When Hurricane Sandy struck the New Jersey coastline head on October 29 with 70 to 90 mile an hour winds at high tide during a full moon the thrust of the storm nearly whipped the little bayshore community of Union Beach in northern Monmouth County off the map. Some 350 homes, a firehouse with all its trucks, dozens of businesses and the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall will have to be rebuilt. That’s approximately 60 percent of the town.


A few concrete steps are the only things that remain of several streets of homes.


Imagine that.


A home is where a family blossoms. Where people come together. Where couples are married. Where children are born and raised. Where holidays are  celebrated. Where veterans return. Where the joys and sorrows of every day processed. Having a safe and healthy place to call home is the foundation that supports the rest of our lives.


Americans are resilient. We will rebuild. We will restore the shore. The image of family photos strew about a town, amid the muck and sand, is heartbreaking.


I read about Jeannette VanHouten’s quest to help reconnect families with their photos and offered to help. Her efforts are as heroic as any other volunteer. Even though her own home was destroyed and will be demolished, she has been gathering photos from around town and trying to connect them to their owners. Many were blown out of destroyed homes or simply washed away


Her own Canon camera equipment was destroyed in the flood waters.  She’s been capturing images of the photos using her Iphone and uploading them to a special Facebook page: Union Beach Photos and Misplaced Items.


Many of these photos can still be preserved. Jeannette has found wedding albums, baby photos, school pictures, several military albums, professional photo shoots and one hand-painted portrait of an elderly gentleman. She even found a completely preserved and dry wedding dress.


In a perfect situation we’d cart these photo off to a lab, clean them, dry them, sort them and await their owners until they decide whether their want them restored. That’s not the reality. This work is happening in far less than ideal circumstances. It’s being done without interfering with the recovery efforts being coordinated by FEMA at the municipal building. These images are deteriorating quickly in the mud and the muck. They are molding more every day. They can’t be removed from the municipal building or firehouse where they’re stored.

Some have already been cleaned and dried. Residents need to take a look.


This town needs lots of help. While photos made not be at the top of the list right this second, in many ways they are. Our personal photographs and cherished heirlooms are the emotional security we need, especially after a disaster.


Here’s what we need. We need people – photographers and photo retouchers, and generous souls – to help Jeannette shoot, dry out and clean these photos on location in Union Beach. We need suppliers of archival materials, photo book companies, and photo labs to donate supplies. We need good scanners and back-up drives.  Can someone replace Jeannette’s Canon camera gear, since she is doing so much work to help restore the shore, one photographic memory at a time. Add one for the police department and two for the fire departments. They lost gear, too.


Jeannette is putting her neighbor’s happiness before her own.  During a giant community clean-up day yesterday we worked for 12 hours to shoot as many photos as possible. Residents came by to sift through the soggy wet piles.  We reconnected a few elated households. Jeanette told me her vision is to organize a Union Beach Family Photo Day in the spring where dozens of volunteer photographers set up their gear, either on the beach or in the parks to provide families with new photos.


Imagine that.  One family. One photo. One lifetime preserved.

This recovered portrait may have been blown out of its frame by Hurricane Sandy. It was recovered in Union Beach, N.J. The canvas and painting are in good shape, except for the sand.

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