N.J. woman who lost home finds purpose by returning lost Sandy photos

(CBS News) UNION BEACH, N.J. - Three weeks after superstorm Sandy, a rescue operation is still underway.

Many people in Union Beach, N.J. curse the ocean for what it took when Sandy roared ashore. Not Jeannette Van Houten. She's grateful for what it's breaking back.

"There's a photo," she said. "There it is photo floating in the water!"

She said she can tell what is a photo and what isn't by the paper and size.

Van Houten's home was one of 200 destroyed by Sandy.

"I couldn't sit around and go, 'Woe me,'" she said. "Because there was a lot of 'woe me' stories."

So instead, she's been walking up and down the beachfront, finding small treasures amid the devastation. On this occasion, she's found a dirty, damaged photo.

"The storm can take our houses," she said. "They can take our possessions. But, she left us these photos."

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Van Houten's gathered 5,000 photos, which she cleans and stores in 50 gallon tubs. Snapshots of weddings, birthdays and even sonograms are among them. They were valuable before the storm. They're priceless now. For example, among what she has recovered is a baby album containing photos of the birth all the way though the first photos of the infant.

Collecting them was one thing. Getting them back to their owners was something entirely different.

"And I was like, 'Okay, what do I do with them? Oh, you know what, Facebook!' The power of social networking," she said.

CBS News saw that power at work as they wrapped up our interview. Someone posted the identity of the owner on Van Houten's Facebook.

Five minutes later, the baby album was on its way back to the family. It first was sent to the aunts.

"It's the baby album!" the first aunt said.

"Oh my God, it is!" the second one replied.

"I can't believe that you found it," the first aunt said.

A few hours later, it was back in the hands of the father, Jose, who lost everything in the storm.

"This is the first thing I have to start with again," Jose said. "This is my memory starting right here."

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So far Van Houten's returned 150 photos. She's "definitely" still finding things.

"That's what people, they keep telling me (I'm) an angel," Van Houten said. "I'm a saint. Everyone needs something to do, and this was my something to do.

Her "something to do" is to help a hometown heal, offering the kind of assistance not even FEMA could provide.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.