Oct. 29, 2013 at 11:03 AM ET
The day after Superstorm Sandy slammed into her hometown of Union Beach, New Jersey, Jeannette Van Houten sought solace in a walk to the storm-battered beach. Her home under six feet of water, her town devastated, she wanted to see the sunrise as a reminder that life would go on. As she stood looking over the horizon, she spotted a photograph in the flood water. When she picked it up, she recognized her niece and nephew smiling back at her. Since then she’s collected nearly 20,000 photos from the debris and vows to hold onto them until they are all returned to their rightful owners.
“There were pictures all over,” Van Houten, 43, told TODAY.com. “I just kept picking them up. I found 50 on just one piece of property but when I showed them to the homeowner he said ‘they’re not mine. I don’t know who those people are.’”
Van Houten enlisted the help of her niece, who was just 14 years old, and the two began wading through flood waters, trudging through mud and sand, and sifting through debris.
“We did everything we could to find more photos,” Van Houten said.
Van Houten scoured the tiny town, which is less than 2 square miles, and the surrounding wetlands, occasionally running into law enforcement. She said she was once stopped by members of the National Guard who told her she was looting.
“I put out my hands and said ‘arrest me then.’ I just wanted these memories returned.”
Among the thousands of images she’s salvaged are the smiling faces of teens on the night of their high school prom, proud parents at their daughter’s graduation, a laminated prayer from a memorial service, a high-school cheerleader striking a pose — all memorable moments to someone, somewhere. Van Houten recalls finding an entire envelope of photos sent from a service member in Afghanistan to his family at home. She has also found numerous images of sonograms.
“Those stand out,” she said. “The baby sonograms. Because the paper they’re printed on is so delicate, so flimsy. I’m always amazed when I can still read the name of the patient and the date on them.”
Not all the photos have been salvageable. Many of the older black and white photos she’s found have already been damaged beyond repair by the water and mud.
Van Houten has set up a headquarters and workspace in her cousin’s basement where she lovingly cleans, dries and hangs many of the images. Though she was already an avid photographer, since embarking on this project she’s consulted photography experts, even YouTube videos, for advice on the best and safest methods to restore the damaged images. The work is slow and meticulous. An asthma sufferer, she wears a face mask to protect herself from the toxic materials she uses.
“It’s not a fast process,” she laughs. “But nothing worth doing is fast.”
Van Houten has no desire to keep these images for herself. The second part of her mission, and perhaps the part that will take the longest time and the most effort, has been to locate the owners of the photos so that she can return them. She’s started a Facebook group where members can browse her stock of images. Many of the photo posts have comments such as “Mine!” or “Thank you!” written below. Under one image of a pretty smiling brunette, a woman wrote: “My beautiful daughter — Thank You.”
Union Beach residents can also go to the town library where they can page through binders that Van Houten has put together. If they see a photo that’s theirs, they can take it home with them. No questions asked. No red tape.
A year after Sandy, Union Beach is far from rebuilt and many frustrated families are still waiting on insurance checks or government assistance. Van Houten said it was important to her that no one had to jump through even more hoops just to get their belongings.
“They can just come here, sit in peace and quiet, and get their memories back,” she said.
For this reason, Van Houten is unsure of exactly how many photos have been claimed but she estimates the number at 5,000. Union Beach is a tight-knit community of just over 6,000 residents and she is confident that as word spreads to those that have been displaced, more people will come seeking their photos.
Van Houten, a technology specialist, is still displaced a year after Sandy. She is staying with family in South Toms River while her parents, with whom she lived, are with her brother. She hopes they can move back into their home this February or March. In the meantime, she’s vowed to continue on with her photo project.
“I’ll keep doing this until the last photo in the last binder is claimed,” she said.