Jeannette Van Houten left it to others to save people, homes and businesses from Superstorm Sandy. She focused on memories.
In the days after the massive storm hit the East Coast on Oct. 29, 2012, devastating shore towns like Union Beach, where the 43-year-old tech specialist lives, Van Houten began to notice something amid the debris of razed homes and in the receding waters. Pictures were everywhere. Snapshots in time from long-ago Little League games, weddings and vacations. School pictures once perched on mantles, Polaroids and portraits, all scattered by the cruel winds and waters of a once-in-a-century storm.
She began collecting them, resolving to return them to their owners. A year later, she's still at it.
“We are up to over 20,000 photos,” Van Houten said in a interview with FoxNews.com near her niece’s home in Toms River, N.J., where she has been staying since the storm took the home she shared with her parents. “Somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 have been returned to their original owners.”
Van Houten spent those first few days after the storm walking through her nearly-decimated neighborhood, sifting through rubble and litter where she started finding picture after picture. Some were badly damaged; others were in remarkably good condition. Touched by the prospect of so many vulnerable memories disappearing forever, Van Houten took on her unique mission. Over the last year, as countless other people have learned of her efforts, she has become the conduit for photos found in the dunes and debris, up and down the coast.
A cousin helps her organize and catalog the photos. They do their best to clean and restore some of the most badly damaged pictures, she said.
“You would think that people would these photos restored, but many of them don’t,” she said. “A lot of the families say to leave it unrestored. They feel it is the picture's story of where it’s been.”
Families who have lost irreplaceable photos can check a Facebook page Van Houten created with thousand of scanned images. They can also visit Union Beach Town Hall, where more than 60 binders containing thousands of the salvaged photos await.
Even though Van Houten found a calling in the aftermath of Sandy, she was not spared the same ordeal that so many of her neighbors faced. Union Beach, which sits on the Raritan Bay about 45 miles south of New York City, was ravaged by the storm surge, and hundreds of homes were destroyed or left condemned with many others submerged in 6 feet of floodwater.
The house Van Houten shared with her parents was condemned and eventually torn down. The lot is empty, and the family is still waiting on part of its insurance claim.
“There has been a ton of red tape,” Van Houten said. “But luckily, we received full coverage for the contents. We are still working on the flood insurance.”
Van Houten is optimistic about the progress, and believes her efforts collecting the photos and returning them to their rightful owners has helped her keep her sanity while her and her family goes through the daunting task of rebuilding.
“Positive thinking keeps me moving forward,” she said. “It’s great seeing people find their photos and to see the look of shock after all this time.
“It’s still the thing that gets me through every day," she added. "In some ways, it helps me more than it helps them.”
Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @perrych