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Preserving memories after Sandy

Damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in Rockaway Beach, Queens. Photo by Elisabeth Ponsot.

When Vincent Hyland’s great-grandmother, Catherine, died in 2004, he took a stack of old photographs from her house on 127 street in Rockaway Beach, Queens, and placed them in his bedroom closet, just five blocks over on 121st.

Among the photographs: a sepia portrait from the 1920’s. Wedding photos from decades prior. A series of monochrome candids.

Then, after promising himself he’d “do something” with the photos sometime soon, he forgot about them.

That is, until October 30, 2012, the day after Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New York City.

The evening prior, Hyland’s basement bedroom was nearly decimated by the historic surge that brought a record 14-foot wall of water into New York Harbor, flooding much of the coastal outer-boroughs, including the Rockaways.

“By 9:30 [p.m.] the water was just rushing in to the basement. And since my bedroom was down there, we ran into the basement to just grab whatever we could.”

He described a frantic scene in which he and family friends grabbed books and clothes as a confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay spilled in through the breached basement windows.

“In less than an hour, the water was floor to ceiling,” he said. “It just filled up like a bathtub.”

In the chaos, at least one box was missed: the photographs from his great-grandmother’s home.

The grassroots group CARE for Sandy provides free photo digital restoration services to the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Video by Elisabeth Ponsot.

The day after Sandy hit, Lee Kelly awoke to an uneasy calm in her Park Slope, Brooklyn apartment.

Overwhelmed by the apparent scale of devastation pictured on the news and online, she began to think of how she might help families impacted by the historic storm.

A freelance creative director by day, Kelly hastily created the website, Cherished Albums Restoration Effort, or CARE for Sandy. Within days, she was coordinating volunteers and setting up scanning events in some of the area’s most devastated by Sandy’s wrath.

In Kelly’s words,

Whereas 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. Photos contain deep-rooted significance.

Since CARE began officially in November of 2012, several hundred volunteers have signed up to restore photos, including a global contingent from over a dozen countries as far away as the Netherlands, Brazil and India.

Today, the Brooklyn-based grassroots group is a team of “renaissance types” who invite families impacted by Sandy to scan up to 100 photographs for free digital restoration. Once the photos are scanned and catalogued according to name, date and degree of difficulty, Kelly’s team contracts a restoration expert to bring the photos back to as close to their original form as possible.

And their standards are high. “We’re looking for professional quality,” Kelly said. “Nearly half are sent back for revisions.”

Once the restorations are complete, Kelly reunites each family with their photographs, and posts the finished products to CARE’s before-and-after gallery.

For Hyland, whose basement bedroom is still being rebuilt, the handful of restored photos he’s received thus far from CARE have exceeded his expectations.

“They look a lot better than they did before they were destroyed, honestly,” he said.

Editor’s note: Go-Preserve, featured in the above video, is no longer affiliated with the Brooklyn-based Care for Sandy.