Amid the wreckage wrought by superstorm Sandy, one Jersey Shore woman who lost her home is fighting to salvage something priceless for neighbors and strangers alike -- memories.
Sifting through piles of rubble, curbside trash and litter scattered by the winds that devastated her community of Union Beach, N.J., Jeannette Van Houten has collected hundreds of photographs. Some are remarkably intact; others are tattered or stained by water. Some depict children still not grown, while others show long-deceased subjects in black and white, smiling across generations. Each is precious to Van Houten, who aims to return them to those who would hold them dear.
"It’s a piece of their home and that’s all that matters,” said Van Houten, whose self-imposed task has given her new purpose even as she seeks to rebuild her own life. “People have been very grateful to have their family photos returned. It’s their life, so you have to give them hope.”
Van Houten's home was condemned days after the hurricane-turned-storm-from-hell struck the Atlantic coast on Oct. 29. Her solemn task began the next day when she was walking along the ravaged shoreline, marveling at the aftermath of Sandy's surging tides, fierce winds and heavy rain.
With another Northeast storm, cancellations pile up as airlines take no chances
Nor'easter bears down on Sandy-battered NYC and New Jersey
Weather Channel names nor'easter, National Weather Service says not so fast
Snapshots and memories found in the wake of Sandy
uReport: Hurricane Sandy
Staten Island Preps for Another Storm
Tens of thousands of homes and businesses lose power again, some transit services suspended as nor'easter hits a week after Sandy
Winter storm deals another nasty blow to Northeast
NY Attorney General Takes on Post-Sandy Price Gougers
New York Gov. Cuomo says superstorm Sandy may cost state $33 billion
NY emergency management director fired after diverting crews to remove tree from his driveway
Black Market for Gas After Hurricane Sandy
Gas Lines Continue in New York and New Jersey
"I started finding them the day after the storm when I was walking along the water looking at all the damage," Van Houten said.
She has gathered more than 300 photos, some of which date back as far as the 1920s. She's posted the images on a Facebook page to help reunite them with the people who treasure them. One such person was Carol Stenquist, who Van Houten met in a chance Election Day encounter at Borough Hall, where townspeople gathered to commiserate and cast their ballots.
Van Houten recognized Stenquist, an election worker, from three photographs from her burgeoning collection. Stenquist was stunned when Van Houten returned two Easter portraits she took with her grandchildren and a snapshot of Stenquist with a friend at an American Legion convention in Wildwood, N.J.
“It’s amazing. I lost everything," Stenquist told FoxNews.com moments after getting the photos back. "To be able to have a little piece of my past…it’s too much for words.
“She’s given me back a piece of my past life. It's just overwhelming.”
There have been others in the close-knit, one-square-mile town of a little more than 6,000. Van Houten studies the pictures, and is ready when she sees a familiar face.
“As I look through all the photos, I think about how I wish I knew who they all were, just so I can return it to the owner right then and there,” she said. “And when I come across somebody that I recognize from the photos, I’ll pull my car over and run up to them and say, ‘I have your photos!’”
Van Houten's efforts have attracted far-flung attention. She said she has been contacted by a company that specializes in photo restoration that wants to help save damaged pictures. And strangely, Van Houten recently learned that a New Yorker some 12 miles up the coastline found a photograph washed ashore there last week.
“Someone from Brooklyn found a photo that had washed up on the shore,” Van Houten said. “They noticed that someone had written, ‘Union Beach’ on the back. They called someone who reached out to us and the photo is being sent back over.”
With crews in bulldozers and trucks hauling away debris, and the town beginning the long process of rebuilding, Van Houten knows the window for saving irreplaceable memories is closing fast. A sense of urgency has gripped her as she does her part in the community's healing process, trying to recover as much as she can before it’s gone forever.
“Now that the cleanup has started, a lot of photos are going to be lost,” she said. “And, the cleanup has to happen, but if we can save at least one photo for each family, that would be an amazing thing to give people. It will give them hope.”
Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @perrych