'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,' she said.
Krista Kowalczyk has been photographing couples on their wedding days and families on vacation in southwest Florida for the past two decades. However, when Hurricane Ian hit the southwestern coast of the state in early October, she lost nearly all her business. "I have weddings that are scheduled for next summer and their venue 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." But while most of her previously scheduled events have been canceled or postponed, Kowalczyk hasn't been idle this month.
Instead of shooting photographs, she has worked around the clock for the past few weeks helping strangers hold on to precious memories by restoring photos recovered from their hurricane-damaged homes. It began when Kowalczyk—who lives in Fort Myers—volunteered to help a neighbor clean out her 89-year-old father's home, which was flooded during the storm. "We drove into this community in North Fort Myers and it was just so devastating to see," she recalled the heartbreaking sight that greeted her. "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 set about cleaning out the home, Kowalczyk's friend asked her whether they should just throw away the dozens of family photographs that despite surviving the storm, 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." This incident sparked an idea in Kowalczyk on how she might be able to help victims of the devastating storm which claimed the lives of more than 100 people.
The following day, Kowalczyk said she and her photography assistant returned to the same neighborhood and began knocking on every door. They asked 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.'" Word soon spread about Kowalczyk's efforts, and the requests started coming in droves. Among them was one local family that lost nearly everything in the hurricane, but managed to salvage thousands of photographs from 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, recalling her phone call with the homeowner. "When I told her I would take all of the photos, I could hear her crying." The massive project has taken over her home, with photographs drying on every flat surface available. The photographs that can't be saved in their present condition will be digitized. "I know firsthand how wonderful photographs are and how important they are," Kowalczyk said.
"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. I like to know that this is doing something positive for somebody who's had a really hard time. 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."