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  • Writer's pictureCita Sue Cox

Mission To Save Photos After Disaster

It has been awhile since I’ve posted a new blog, but I have a very good reason and it has to do with my passion for photos.  I am deviating on this one from my step-by-step process and I promise I’ll get back to it!!

Two days after Christmas 2015, a huge tornado went across many square miles in North Texas.  One of the towns hit the worst was Garland, Texas, which is my hometown.  I have family and friends that still live there.  I just went through training the year before with the National Disaster Photo Rescue (NDPR) organization and still live in the Dallas area, so I knew when I saw how bad the damage was, it was time for me and my team to do what we could.

As our NDPR team gathered to spend the day in the disaster zone, we really didn’t know what to expect.  In our heart, we so wanted to find a bunch of lost photos so we could do what we do and in the end return those precious memories to their owners.  Our hearts sunk because it became obvious very quickly — when you see houses totally destroyed, iron fences totally bent, cars on top of mailboxes, mattresses in trees, and metal pieces wadded up like pieces of paper, how in the world would a piece of paper like a photo even survive? 

Then we saw a house with no walls, but the front door standing with the Christmas wreath still intact, a house with one end completely gone but upstairs one wall of a closet still there with clothes still hanging in the closet, a church with no roof and few standing walls yet the huge cross that was on the roof was found unscathed across the highway, a house with no walls on front but a knick-knack shelf on an inner wall with all the knick-knacks still on it – then we knew!  There are photos that survived and they are out there!

We soon found out that our mission was more about getting the word out to everyone we could to rescue those photos as they found them and for them to know what to do with them.   We frantically copied the flyer we had at our first drop-off location so we would have something to hand out.  As we drove through the affected areas, we posted flyers on resource boards, left copies to temporary relief centers, and handed them to all the volunteers – companies, individuals, volunteers, city officials, and even homeowners.

This tornado covered a lot of miles and we began getting calls from people all the way up to the Oklahoma border finding photos in their yards.  Lots of people affected of course didn’t have computers or even phones at this point, but if we get the word out to as many as we can that do, they would hear about it eventually and visit us later to see if any photos found belong to them.

Collection sites were set up, several more search-and-rescue trips were made, and photos began coming in.  In the spring, the NDPR team cleaned, scanned, and uploaded the LOST photos to our Facebook page (Lost Photos of Garland and Rowlett, TX Tornado) and people are finding their photos!  We just had our first “reunification” day and returned almost 100 photos to their owners.  It has been quite a year and very rewarding to be able to give back to victims who lost so much.

Through all this, it now seems even more important to me to have photos digitized (especially the very old ones of ancestors) and backed up off-site.  We love our hard copy prints and albums and as a photo organizer, I have been taught that your best backup are the physical prints; however, if a tornado wiped your house off its slab, your hard copies, your computer, your external drives — all of it — is gone.  I’ve seen it first-hand.  My Dad’s house is in Garland and he has all the very old family pictures.  His home wasn’t hit by the tornado, but it was really close.  My family would have lost them all.  I have made it a priority this year to scan all those photos to preserve them.

As I’ve said before, I know this is not something that can be accomplished easily or quickly.  That’s why I always stress to my clients to just get started.  Prioritize and break it down in small projects.  Maybe number one needs to be scanning and backing up those vintage pictures!

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