Hurricane Sandy Photo Recovery at Union Beach, NJ

Editor’s note: A version of this post originally appeared on Mary Danielsen’s Documented Legacy blog site.

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.

When Hurricane Sandy struck the New Jersey coastline on October 29, with 70 to 90 mile an hour winds at high tide during a full moon, the thrust of the storm nearly wiped the little bayshore community of Union Beach 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 are 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 New Jersey shore just as other communities have come back after disasters. But 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.

Jeannette’s own 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.

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 for their owners to decide whether they 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 and are waiting for their owners.

Photos hang to dry on a clothes rack, which works well in emergency response situations because it requires little investment and no electricity. Volunteers, including a group of Eagle Scouts, work to clean other photos.

This town needs lots of help. While photos may 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.

On the first day I volunteered I took more than 800 photos of the rescued photos. Afterward I sent an email begging for help to Couragent president Gordon Nuttall, the maker of FlipPal mobile scanners. There is no regular place to work in town, still no guaranteed source of electricity, and no designated spot yet where the photos can be stored for residents to search. We knew if we could get images of the photos up online quickly, we had a chance to reconnect them to their owners. Gordon sent us two FlipPal scanners in disaster recovery kits, complete with rechargeable batteries. The first day we used the scanners we processed 800 photos in four hours.

One Union Beach family searches through recovered photos to find a handful of their memories. In the background is Gordan Nuttall, president of FlipPal.

Gordon then organized his entire FlipPal team to help us. The following weekend he arrived with a suitcase of scanners for a three-day photo recovery and scanning event. We easily processed 3,000 photos and scanned 2,500. The beauty of this product is that we could work anywhere in a disaster recovery zone, even on the hood of my car if necessary.

But this effort is far from over. 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 we need 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 on Saturday, Dec. 1, 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.

Anyone interested in helping Union Beach residents preserve their photos can contribute to a fundraising effort for supplies. For more information, contact Jeannette VanHouten at

About today’s contributor: A member of the Association of Personal HistoriansMary V. Danielsen is a professional personal historian and public relations consultant who lives about an hour away from Union Beach. Her company, Documented Legacy, helps people and organizations record aspects of their personal history by documenting their experiences, values, beliefs, and charitable decisions through the use of storytelling, legacy writing, and ethical wills. Mary is currently researching the art history of her great grandfather, Fidardo Landi, and working on a book about motherhood of a large family. Her first published military memoir, From The Top Turret, is expected to be released this winter.

Photos by Mary V. Danielsen.

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8 Responses to Hurricane Sandy Photo Recovery at Union Beach, NJ

  1. Pingback: Hurricane Sandy Photo Recovery | True Stories Well Told

  2. Fran Morley says:

    As a resident of the Gulf Coast, which has seen more than its share of hurricanes, I can assure you that your community will recover. It will be tough, and some things will never be the same, but it will be home again. And thanks to this wonderful effort, many of those homes will have their precious photo memories intact.

  3. I had chills when I read about this. I cannot imagine anything kinder and more inspiring than this.

  4. cj Madigan says:

    I have been seeing the photos on my Facebook feed – all those memories. This is truly important work. Kudos to Jeannette for organizing it and to Mary for leveraging it.

  5. Our friends at Couragent, makers of the FlipPal scanners we are using on this project, have shared their thoughts from this weekend’s scanning events.

  6. That’s our marvelous Mary ! Ditto what Susan & CJ said as I, too, sit here with tears in my eyes: Way to Go, Mary ! :-0)

  7. Thanks so much for your help in highlighting the efforts involved in recovering and restoring family photos! Flip-Pal mobile scanner also has a blog post today about our work last weekend in Union Beach, New Jersey

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