For the past 20 years, Krista Kowalczyk has photographed couples on their wedding days and families on vacation in southwest Florida, particularly Sanibel and Captiva Islands.
“I have weddings that are scheduled for next summer and their venue is is not there anymore,” Kowalczyk told “Good Morning America.” “On an average week, I’d photograph 10 or so families on the beach, and all of those have been canceled.”
Instead of shooting photographs, Kowalczyk has worked around the clock for the past week to help strangers restore photos recovered from their hurricane-damaged homes.
The effort started when Kowalczyk, who lives in Fort Myers, volunteered to help a neighbor clean out her 89-year-old father’s home, which had been flooded during the storm.
“We drove into this community in North Fort Myers and it was just so devastating to see,” Kowalczyk recalled. “Everything they owned was in piles on the streets, and it wasn’t just one street. It was block after block after block.”
As they cleaned out the home, Kowalczyk said her friend asked whether they should just throw away the dozens of family photographs that survived the storm, but had major water damage.
“I knew what we needed to do with them, but she had no clue what to do with these photographs that were just laying across their front yard,” said Kowalczyk. “I just started focusing on pictures and then we found boxes of pictures, pictures going back to 1850.”
The next day, Kowalczyk said she and her photography assistant went back to the same neighborhood and began knocking on every door, asking people if they needed help salvaging photos that were damaged in the hurricane.
“People were very appreciative just to have somebody come up to their house and say, ‘How can I help you,'” she said. “For some of them, I just offered tips, saying, ‘Just take those out of the albums. That’s all you have to do,’ or, ‘Rinse this off, throw it in some water and those pictures will be fine.’ “
As word spread about Kowalczyk’s efforts, she began to get more requests. Friends and family members volunteered to help too.
For one local family that lost nearly everything in the hurricane, Kowalczyk is working to restore thousands of photographs that the family found amid the remains of their home.
“I could hear the desperation in her voice that she just she cared so much about these pictures,” Kowalczyk said, recounting her phone call with the homeowner, whom she has yet to meet. “When I told her I would take all of the photos, I could hear her crying.”
Kowalczyk said the project has overtaken her own home, which now has photographs drying on every surface.
For those that can’t be saved, she is taking a photograph of each picture so they can be digitized.
For important items like wedding portraits that take more specialization, Kowalczyk said she put out a call on photographers’ online forums and received an overwhelming response of offers of help.
“I know firsthand how wonderful photographs are and how important they are,” Kowalczyk said of her commitment to helping. “This is the one thing that kind of captures a moment forever. The couch will be replaced, but you can’t replace those family photographs.”
Kowalczyk says she knows it could take months or years for the tourism and wedding industries to return to the Sanibel area. Clients have already asked her to travel to their new wedding locations, and said she hopes that her wedding business will at least be able to continue to grow.
In the meantime, amid the devastation of the beloved part of Florida she has called home for most of her life, Kowalczyk said she is happy to have a way to give back through her photography work.
“I like to know that this is doing something positive for somebody who’s had a really hard time,” she said. “It’s been a happy distraction to know that I was I have been helping people as opposed to just sitting there and fretting over what is happening.”