Facebook Effort Reunites Owners With Photos Lost in Hurricane Sandy

A Facebook effort to return lost photos to their owners is returning memories, one click at a time. By Nina Strochlic.

On Friday, Nov. 2, residents of Bay Head, N.J., finally were allowed to assess the damage Hurricane Sandy had wrought on their idyllic beachfront neighborhood, and Sally George had come to see what was left of her recently purchased home. As she walked along her street, a picture in a wooden frame of a laughing girl and her father on a fishing trip caught her eye amid the piles of debris and thick coat of sand covering everything. “It was a lovely photograph of a father and his daughter,” George remembers. “The frame struck me because it had an inscription—words spoken from a daughter to her father. I had been close to my dad. I still miss him every day. If I had ever seen this frame in a store, I would have bought it for him and put my favorite photo of us inside.”

She picked it up and, unsure what to do with it, brought it to her office and put it on her desk. “If I were this girl’s father, I know I would want this back,” she told her co-worker Elizabeth Chiu, who agreed to use her online savvy to seek its owner. Chiu posted it on Facebook, Tumblr, Google +, and Twitter, and soon got a repost on the Lavallette is Strong Facebook page, where Erica Weinschenk, an IT analyst, saw it. “I knew the audience for that group was small, based on its ‘likes,’ so I jumped on it and within seconds had it posted up to the Jersey Shore Hurricane News page,” she remembers. It quickly had hundreds of likes and 1,300 shares of others spreading the photo within their networks.

Within three hours, Aimee Lazewski had seen it. “That’s me and my dad!!!!” she commented on the picture. “A friend just saw this and called. Thank you so so much!! I’m so happy you found this, thank you!! I have such mixed happy it was found but sad that it was washed away in the first place along with so many other personal items for everyone affected. Reaching out like this means so much.”

With billions of dollars in damage and thousands of homes destroyed in the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, a single photograph isn’t much. But for those who have lost everything, its value is hard to quantify. Forced by an evacuation order, most people, expecting to return quickly, left their shore homes with only minimal overnight bags. Irreplaceable memories were swept away when the storm hit. Thousands of photos have washed ashore in the aftermath, and a budding Facebook movement of thousands is intent on reuniting these memories, one at a time, with their rightful owners.

Lazewski was amazed by the effort of so many strangers trying to reconnect her with the photo. “I just couldn’t believe I was looking at myself and that there was somebody searching for me.” Her parents’ ground floor had been washed out with the surge, and with it, this Father’s Day present she had given her dad, John, 10 years ago. Lazewski, who now lives in Little Silver, N.J., was immediately transported back to that day and couldn’t help but laugh at the memory of watching her dad try to catch a fish. “I thought it was so touching that somebody took the time, when they have their own stuff going on, to reach out and find out who it belonged to and where it came from,” Lazewski says. “It’s the first step of picking up the pieces.”

With the success of Lazewski’s story, the photos keep rolling in, and many owners are getting the happy endings they deserve. Hundreds of comments on each picture reveal how moved the group members are in observing the reunions of picture and owner. “People were waiting for the next photo because they wanted to get that excitement, feel that hope, to see the joy in the messages,” says Justin Auciello, who runs Jersey Shore Hurricane News, which spearheaded the movement. He jokes that manning the page and posting the photos now takes three times more work than his day job as a city planner. But it’s worth it, he says.

“That’s the essence of a good community.” He laughs. “It’s kind of something that I wish would happen to me—to see something that I thought was gone forever show up on my Facebook news feed. That would be the greatest thing ever.”

A few pictures up from Lazewski’s is another success story. The photo is worn and damaged, but Alex Laymon, a 27-year-old sales manager in Manhattan, immediately recognized it. There she was, frozen in time as a high-school freshman, perched in the back of a pickup truck, squinting against the bright light in her white tennis polo. Her parents’ house in Mantoloking, N.J., “looks like it never existed,” she says. Her mother is especially devastated that all her daughter’s baby pictures are gone. But slowly, some salvaged memories are being located.

Tara Lucchetti grew up down the street from Laymon and started collecting bits and pieces after the storm, in the hopes of reconnecting them with their owners. “It was so sad to see memories that belonged to others gone,” she says. Within minutes of posting to the Jersey Shore page a photo she had found of a high-school tennis team, Laymon contacted her.

“When I received her message, it gave me chills,” she remembers.

“These are things you haven’t thought about in years and years, and all of a sudden it’s a precious commodity,” Laymon says.

Nothing can replace lost photographs, but local efforts are helping as they can. A photography alliance called Souls Rebuilt is offering free portraits to survivors of the storm, and others are offering complimentary photo restoration and cleaning services. Another Facebook page, For Shore Photos, started collecting found photos as well, and the effort is only spreading outward, in a pay-it-forward style.

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In the scope of things, a picture isn’t much, but the memories it evokes are irreplaceable, Auciello says. “It’s just a photo, but to some of these people who’ve lost everything, having that photo is a sign of hope—knowing there is something of mine that’s still around, there’s a reason why I was reunited with it, and that’s going to help me get through this whole time.”