The other day, when I was helping to clear out a storage space in a flood-damaged Brooklyn home, a lot of items that must have once had some sentimental value passed through my hands. One by one, the sodden relics went into heavy-duty black plastic trash bags: the plush rabbit, the pudgy doll with lopsided eyes, the fleecy baby bunting. This stuff had been in there since the 1950s, according to the house’s current owner, when her grandfather was still around. She wanted none of it. So we trashed it all.
Until that is, we came to a pile of photographs, some in frames behind glass, that had survived the rising waters in surprisingly good shape. Who was the man with marcelled hair in the dapper suit? Who was the smiling woman in the hand-tinted sepia print? We didn’t know, but it felt wrong to put those faces in the bags. We gave them to the owner and she took them upstairs, maybe thinking there was still some meaning to be salvaged there, as her home was being turned inside out and left by the curb.
Photographs are one of the things people think of saving when disaster comes washing in. Along with more obviously essential things like passports and medications, photo albums and framed portraits on the walls are one of the items you instinctively want to reach for – those captured moments when your teenager was still a baby, when your beloved grandmother was still alive, when your spouse was still your fiancé.
But when the Atlantic Ocean is surging at the front door, you can’t grab all the snapshots that are such a familiar part of your life’s memory palace. And water does crazy things to photographs, as seen in a recent New York Times slideshow of Sandy-damaged pictures retrieved from the streets of Staten Island shows. (Hurricane Katrina created similarly haunting images.)
And yet: many of these photos can be restored. And starting today, there’s a program to help people recover the treasured images that have been damaged. It’s called CARE for Sandy, and CARE stands for Cherished Albums Restoration Effort. They’re holding their first photo-scanning and restoration effort today in the Rockaways.
The group’s founder, Lee Kelly, is quoted on the Rockaway Cares website, saying: “Cars, homes and jobs are replaceable, images of mom & dad’s honeymoon, baby’s first steps and great great grandpa’s sole surviving portrait are priceless.”
Working in partnership with GoPreserve and others, CARE for Sandy is offering storm-slammed residents up to 100 free scans of damaged prints (photos over that limit will be scanned at 50 percent off the normal rate). Those scans will be retouched by volunteer professionals and returned to the owners digitally. Those who want the service are asked to designate their “Most Cherished” image so retouchers will give it extra attention.
It will take months for volunteer retouchers to do the work – as long as rebuilding some of the bigger physical losses that Sandy inflicted. Nothing will be exactly the same as it was before. But the memories will live on that much longer.
Top image: A sample restoration (not destroyed by Sandy) from the founder of CARE for Sandy.