Nearly one year ago, Union Beach was hit hard by Sandy. Last month, the Ocean County, New Jersey planning board estimated that 26,000 people were still unable to return to their homes, and AP News reported that "full recovery from Superstorm Sandy is still elusive." Sandy has become the second-costliest storm in U.S. history at $65 billion, trailing only Hurricane Katrina's $125 billion cost.
Homes and lives are being pieced together even today but for many people, there's something that can't be replaced and is the most valuable of all: memories captured in photos and videos. There is no price tag for baby pictures, no set value for video of a wedding or birthday party. These memories truly are priceless.
Just ask the people who have lost them.
Jeannette Van Houten's home in Union Beach was destroyed by six feet of water damage. Within a month after the hurricane, she found photos washing up on the Jersey shore, and decided she had to do something about it. Jeannette created a Facebook page to reunite her fellow citizens with their photos:Sandy's Lost Treasures invites visitors to post misplaced pictures in case their rightful owners came looking. Within days after Jeanette created it, the page had over 4,000 visitors, all of whom who were desperate to be reunited with their photos.
In an interview with the New York Daily News, Van Houten said, "Sandy destroyed metal and wood and steel and concrete. But we're finding these pieces of paper, these photos, and their images are still beautiful."
Union Beach resident Sharon McMahon found many of her family photos via Van Houten's Facebook page: "I kind of thought it was a lost cause, but then someone tagged my fiancé and me in a picture and I started to go through them. There were tons," McMahon told the Daily News. "My baby pictures. Ones we didn't have digital copies of."
Through any post-disaster devastation, a sadness that knows no social, economic or political boundaries creeps into the hearts of victims as they sift through the rubble of their homes: a sadness over the loss of memories.
Pictures, home movies, and family photo albums -- the very essence of memory in its most tangible form -- are the seemingly small mementos that leave the biggest void for many victims of natural disasters. Kitchens can be remodeled and floors be retiled, but these delicate pieces of the past cannot be replaced.
Technology Can Save the Day; Put Your Memories in a "Virtual Firebox"
"Save your family photos; use a storage bin, any water proof container, and make sure to store them someplace dry!" Such were the warning cries of former flood victims offered in the days leading up to Sandy on cyber communities like Reddit.
Thanks to technology, there are ways to avoid the frenzy of tossing photos, negatives, and videos into plastic containers and attempting to lug them out with you when disaster strikes. Instead, save that footage of your first birthday or parents' wedding online, where these memories can live forever and be accessible to you, even when the originals are lost. Many retail locations -- Target, Walmart, Sam's Club, CVS and Costco and locally owned stores -- offer customers a service to transfer old home movies and photos to an online account. For those who prefer the do-it-yourself approach, scan old photos into a computer and storing them in a web-based service like Google Drive, iCloud or Dropbox.
Saving your old home movies and photos in a 'virtual firebox' in the cloud can save you heartache later. If you ever find yourself facing a natural disaster, you don't want to have to think about which of your memories you can save; skip the plastic storage bins and switch to a virtual firebox -- and if something does happen, you will always have the option of printing off more photos, you'll be able to watch your home movies online from anywhere in the world and best of all share them and pass them down to further generations all digitally.
Floods, Fires and Just the Ravages of Time
Hurricane season isn't the only reason to consider safeguarding home videos and photos. Floods, fires and whatever else Mother Nature's wrath may have in store can be equally as devastating -- and simply the passage of time can damage your photos and videos.
In 2011, the National Fire Protection Association reported that U.S. fire departments responded to 370,000 home fires, and this year has already seen unprecedented damage resulting from forest fires:
- 30 homes destroyed by the September 2013 California wildfires
- More than 100 homes destroyed by the July 2013 Arizona wildfires
- 486 homes destroyed and 37 damaged by the Colorado forest fires
Full disclosure, I know this situation well, as the CEO of YesVideo, I oversee the digital processing of thousands of tapes, film reels, and photos every day; but still, we estimate that 17 million tapes will be lost this year to natural disaster, degradation or just plain negligence.
Of course many of us think that the odds of ever facing a major natural disaster are quite small. But in addition to loss from catastrophes, millions of old tapes and family photos tucked away in the basement or attic are slowly decaying just due to the passage of time. A 2012 InfoTrends Video User Study showed that 4 out of 5 people (78 percent) did not realize that video tapes degrade in quality over time, making them unviewable.
Temperature is a key factor in making film deteriorate at a rapid pace. Even if stored in optimum conditions, time itself takes its toll on our video memories, and causes the dyes in the film fade a bit each day, making it all the more critical to save your memories virtually before they literally fade away.
Save Yourself the Heartache of Loss
"What would you take with you if your house was burning down or flooding?" Most of us would answer this question with "My pictures and videos -- those things that are irreplaceable." But, lugging a firebox out the door doesn't have to be part of your evacuation plan, and we can't always count on heroes like Van Houten to come to the rescue when our priceless mementos are at stake.
We often realize the importance of something only when it's gone. Heed the warning of those who've lost their memories, for it's not the replaceable kitchens and homes mourned most, but more often, the irreplaceable photographs. As Van Houten said, "You can replace a home. You can replace possessions within the home. But you're never going to get the first photo of your newborn baby back."
Take time now to research companies that specialize in home video and photo transfer techniques, or make time to start saving them yourself. You can make your memories last forever by keeping them safe in a virtual firebox, and ensure they will survive the ravages of time and anything else Mother Nature sends our way.