When water flooded the first floor of her Mill Basin house, 82-year old Shirley Swiss was riding out the hurricane with her daughter, Nancy Dimondsten. The two women nervously lingered on the top floor of Swiss’s two-story house when they both suddenly realized that the living room coffee table where Swiss kept all family photos was already under the stinky water brought by hurricane Sandy. Dimondsten rushed downstairs to bring up the soaked albums. One after another, she carried upstairs baskets filled with treasured photos —among them, her mother’s wedding album from 1948.
“I think I was numb for days,” Swiss said about the moment when she realized that the album’s thick black pages and the photos attached to them were all wet. “It was the history of my beginning with my husband,” she said, adding that they had a happy marriage that lasted 58 years, until her husband passed away.
After months of looking at the damaged pictures, the mother and daughter decided to look for ways to reconstruct the valuable images. That’s when Dimondsten found CARE for Sandy, a free pictures restoration program, which came to Red Hook on February 23rd.
On Sunday, a group of volunteers set up tables with scanners and laptops. Photographers, graphic designers and computer specialist wearing white-cloth gloves labeled and scanned up to 100 pictures brought by each family of Sandy survivors, including Swiss. She carried the large pages of a photo album from a wedding that was a center of a love story between a 16-year old Jewish girl and a World War Two veteran, Keith Arthur Swiss.
Volunteers scanned the pictures and later transferred them to a server accessed by 450 photographers from 21 countries who use sophisticated computer programs to repair the damage on the images.
“This is a skill that I could offer,” said a volunteer Ail Green, 56, who came to Red Hook from Baltimore.
A full time lawyer and a photographer in her free time, Green has already restored seven pictures. She has worked on wedding photos and a picture of two naked children playing in the garden. It takes about ten hours to fix a damaged photo, she said.
“It gives you a good feeling,” Green said, adding that she would like to know more about the people she helped but the volunteers are not able to contact the pictures’ owners. “I ask myself, who is that woman? What is her story?”
CARE, which stands for Cherished Albums Restoration Effort is a program started and funded by Lee Kelly, a freelance creative director from Park Slope. Inspired by a newspaper article featuring a damaged photo, Kelly decided to help Sandy victims by restoring their pictures. She first did it by herself and now has an army of supporters.
“In no way can I comprehend what they are going through,” Kelly said about the families and the damage done by the hurricane. She said that the main idea of the project was to help people preserve the positive memories, often about people who are no longer alive. “It’s just story after story,” she said.
On Sunday, the volunteers in Red Hook scanned damaged pictures from family vacations, graduations and first dates. Some of the photos wouldn’t fit into the scanner. Some were stubbornly glued to the albums’ foil, but volunteers calmly worked on the scans while the pictures’ owners waited for the return of the original photos. The repaired images would be sent to them electronically in a few months.
Each family could bring up to a 100 pictures and was asked to select the most cherished picture and a few photos that are very special to them.
For Gary and Marilyn Gelfand from Bell Harbor it was a picture from Marylin’s childhood and Gary’s grandparent’s wedding portrait from 1918.
“It was in such a cute little frame,” Marilyn said about a round black and white picture of herself as a child that was about the size of a women’s palm. “It’s the only one I have as a baby,” she said of the picture that was still in a frame that Marylyn’s mother bought over 60 years ago the day that Sandy hit.
Gary’s grandparents’ portrait hung on the wall of their finished basement that was completely flooded during Sandy.
“You can’t keep them on a memory stick when they’re gone, they’re gone,” Gary said. “We had six and a half feet of water in the basement. These are the only ones that made it out,” he added showing a small pile of old photos.
Sunday’s scanning event was one of the ways for Sandy victims to submit the damaged photos. Already scanned images could be also uploaded via the program’s website: careforsandy.org. Kelly and her crew plan another free scanning events in Staten Island and Long Island.
“If you want to do something, do this in a right way,” Kelly said.