The adage says "a picture is worth a thousand words," but when Leeann Lewandowski happened upon a photograph of her late mother on Facebook after her home was destroyed in Superstorm Sandy, she was speechless.
"The first thing I see on my Timeline is my mother holding my daughter, Katie, on the day that she was born. I'm usually a very cheery person, but I absolutely crumbled," said Lewandowski, a 47-year-old elementary school teacher and mother of twin 14-year-old girls from Union Beach, N.J.
Union Beach is a small seaside community with fewer than 6,500 residents, and Sandy hit it hard, destroying nearly 200 homes and decimating the coastline.
"It was kind of like 'The Wizard of Oz,'" said resident Pamela Vasquez.
A hot tub was found a block and a half away from where it once sat. Remnants of wooden decks floated in the tide. Family photo albums were buried under piles where multistory houses once stood.
Jeannette Van Houten also lost her Union Beach home in Sandy, but buried among the devastation she found a calling -- to return memories of happier times to the 1.8-square-mile township by reuniting residents with the family photographs that Sandy scattered to the winds.
The day after the storm, Van Houten went for a walk along the shoreline to assess the damage and she stumbled upon a photograph of a couple attending a wedding. She leaned down, picked it up and, suddenly, her mission became clear.
"Photos are the only things that hold us to the past. My niece was murdered in 2008 and the only thing we have left of her is our photos," said Van Houten.
She soon started a Facebook page where she uploaded the pictures she found, hopeful that through the power of social media, residents of the small community would see them and be able to identify the faces and families in the photographs.
Since she started, Van Houten has uploaded more than 2,000 photos to the Facebook page -- and she's still looking each day for more lost memories among the debris. About 60 families have reclaimed photos so far, she said. And some people, like Lewandowski and her daughters, have since joined the effort.
After all, Van Houten is the reason Lewandowski saw her late mother on Facebook and broke down that day; Van Houten is the reason she got a rare memento of her mother back.
"My mother, very much like myself, hated having her picture taken. That day, I didn't see anything but a picture of my mother holding my baby. I even posted 'Today is going to be a good day.' It's such a gift," said Lewandowski.
Vasquez, who also lost her home, found baby photos of her now grown children on Van Houten's Facebook page.
"You hold your memories in your heart, but yet to be able to look back, it's amazing," she said. "My husband's parents are both gone and we had a picture of both of them in our living room. We don't have them anymore. It's nice that somebody's out there trying to find your memories and give them back to you."
Paying it forward, Vasquez has also begun to take photos she finds to the police station to be uploaded to the online forum.
"You can lose your home, you can lose your possessions. Volunteers can help you get food, get shelter, get clothing, but in the end, if no one thinks of picking up the photos or the objects that were miles from where they were supposed to be, people don't feel whole," said Van Houten.
As more communities that were ordered to evacuate are allowed to re-enter their neighborhoods, similar initiatives have begun to pop up along the badly beaten Jersey Shore.
Jeannie Esti recently started the For Shore Photos Project, which asks residents and cleanup volunteers to collect photographs that were strewn about in the storm surge.
Esti lives in Rhode Island now, but she grew up in Mantoloking, N.J., where her parents still live.
Her childhood home was luckily left unscathed, but in the backyard, she found kitchen cabinets, books, even a little boy's football helmet signed by the actor and former football player John Amos. And, of course, photographs.
"I grew up with sand in my pants in my whole life," she said. "It's that moment where you sit back and think these could be my pictures."
For those without photo scanners, Esti has teamed up with local New Jersey businesses like Joe Leone's specialty food stores in Sea Girt and Point Pleasant as drop-off locations for lost-and-found photos that are then collected and uploaded to the For Shore Photos Facebook page.
"Photography is so common and ubiquitous that we take it for granted, and we don't realize how important it is to us," said Marina Berio, who heads the general studies program at the International Center of Photography. "It's the despair of losing part of yourself. Your very memories are being taken away from you."
Jenika McDavitt, a photographer who studied psychology at Yale and runs the blog "Psychology for Photographers," agrees.
"We as humans become habituated to our environment. We forget the way that grandma's house looked. When you find a photo that shows those things that you are habituated to and you forgot, it brings back all those memories that you forgot to stop and remember," she said.