CARTHAGE, Mo. – White-gloved workers line the long tables, carefully sifting through photos of proms and weddings, baby's first day, proud soldiers in their uniforms. They gently clean off any dirt, dry rain-damaged pictures — and salvage a city's lost treasures.
The history of Joplin, Mo., is slowly coming into focus here, one snapshot, one portrait at a time. A church room in this nearby town has been converted into collection central for more than 27,000 photos buried or blown away in the monster May tornado that left 160 dead and obliterated a third of Joplin.
Amazingly, even as 200 mph winds reduced homes to splinters, fragile photos survived. Even more incredible was where some turned up: Trees. Barns. Barbed wire fences. In Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Tennessee. And, of course, all across Missouri.
Days after the May 22 storm, Angela Walters, a genealogist in Oklahoma, noticed some of these photos on Facebook pages. Many listed bare-bones information: streets where the pictures were found, a contact phone number. Why not put all of them in one place, Walters thought, so their owners could find them? So many people had lost so much, surely they'd cherish any trace of their past.
"When a disaster happens, as soon as you hear a family is safe, the next thing you always think about is photos," she says. "They're irreplaceable. We can go back to the time and place and people we don't have in front of us anymore. They're the record of our lives."
Walters created a Facebook page — the Lost Photos of Joplin — to post pictures found in the storm-ravaged city and far beyond. She joined forces with a similar local project, and the First Baptist Church in Carthage stepped up to help.
Volunteers at the church — about a dozen miles from Joplin — clean and dry each photo. They record anything written on the images, then number, scan and send them to Walters. She plans to post about 1,000 a week. (DVDs, letters and other personal mementoes also are being returned.)
"We're trying to let people know there's a community here that wants to preserve their memories ... help them move forward and assure them everything is going to be OK," says Thad Beeler, head of the church's photo rescue team.
It's slow going. Almost 500 photos have been returned so far. For every "find," there's reason to celebrate.
Judy Lowe, a real estate agent, lost everything in the twister; all that remained of her house were bathroom tiles. So finding a photo of her son, Scott, on the Facebook page "was like claiming a victory from the tornado," she says.
"Every day you realize everything you had is gone," Lowe explains. "You think, ~I don't have this or that.' Then to get one part of your life back — it's overwhelming. You just cry."
The battered, orange-tinted picture shows Scott, then 2 (he's now 8) mugging for the camera in the bathroom, pretending to be shaving with foam on his chin.
"It's a day and a memory and a piece of time," she says of the photo. "That's all I have now. I don't have a baby blanket. I don't have his first little outfit he came home in. I don't want you to think I'm a pack rat, but it's honestly something that takes me back to happier times. ... Since the tornado, they've been few and far between."
Holly Wilson found comfort, too, in a photo, after losing her grandmother in the tornado. The elderly woman suffered a fatal heart attack while trying to ride out the storm huddled in a closet with her daughter (Wilson's mother) and another family member.
Wilson turned to the Facebook page, searching for familiar faces. "I thought maybe if I look every second of every day, I can find a little piece of hope," she says.
She did. She found a vintage black-and-white photo of her great-grandparents with their first grandchild. She was so excited she woke her mother — who'd lost her house and job — even though it was 3 a.m. "My mother was grinning ear to ear," Wilson says. "It was like my grandmother was there a little bit."
Wilson says the picture was old so she wouldn't have known that was her family if the names weren't on it.
About 25 percent of the 'lost' photos have some written information. Walters has used clues — school logos and team uniforms, for instance — to help identify others.
The photos span more than a century, ranging from sepia-tinted studio portraits to digital snapshots. They capture changes in cars and clothes, hemlines and hairdos, along with enduring milestones: a bride's glow, a child's glee at his birthday party, a graduate's proud smile.
This is one town's history through a lens.
There are individual portraits: One of the grandest is a giant 1904 photo of a man named Sylvester Clarence Couch, dapper with his hair parted down the middle, a derby and pearl-like tie pin. Noted on the back: his Oct, 18, 1884, birthdate, and the fact that he was 20 in the photo.
There are class pictures: The smiling first graders at Emerson Elementary School (which was severely damaged by the tornado) are seen in 1942, sitting next to a war-themed placard: "We do our part for V."
And there are family albums: One large cardboard collage features a faded image of World War I soldier, a handsome World War II soldier bookended by two women, little boys in cowboy hats and jodhpurs, a young man in a graduation cap and gown, couples in bridal wear, cars from almost every decade, and more. Will someone recognize a cousin or aunt and come forward?
The project is mostly about photos, but organizers also hope to match people with other lost possessions including recipes, wedding DVDs, military papers and letters, many poignant or funny.
In one, an aunt and uncle lovingly celebrate their niece's first birthday, writing: "You have brought joy to so many people." In another, a soldier updates his health in a March 17, 1945, correspondence: "The stitches are out and I can lay on my back a little — that is with a pillow. ... Ha, ha, they sewed me up with the silver wire, ..."
Walters hopes to post everything online, then have a public display. Anything not claimed will be given to a local museum or library.
The Facebook page is one of a handful of efforts to return cherished possessions to the people of Joplin.
The Joplin Museum Complex will give away tens of thousands of negatives of portraits, wedding and yearbook pictures to those photographed or their families. The pictures were taken by Murwin Mosler, a studio photographer who chronicled Joplin's people and buildings over nearly 50 years.
Some images belonged to the museum; others come from the late photographer's tornado-damaged studio.
"This is one thing that can be of value to people," says Brad Belk, the museum's executive director. "This is their history and we want to get it back to them."
There still is much collecting to do from the streets; hundreds of photos arrive at the church daily.
Judy Lowe and her son, Scott, donated about 65 they found while walking the rubble-strewn street where their house once stood.
Lowe is assembling a scrapbook of the tornado for her two young sons. It will include three photos of them that were returned to her. "It's something my boys will keep and hopefully," she says, "it'll bring them peace."
She says they've all learned a lesson — treasures have no price tag.
"All this other stuff is just stuff," she says. "It's the memories that count — and the photos."
Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer for The Associated Press. She can be reached at features(at)ap.org.