Memories saved

On Feb. 19, 1986, a levee in the Delta broke letting the waters of the Mokelumne River inundate Tyler Island. The tiny town of Walnut Grove where my parents lived was threatened as the flood waters crept up from the southern portion of the island to the more populated north. The residents were ordered to evacuate and I remember helping my parents pack up their belongings to move to higher ground. One of the things that my mom and dad nearly forgot was to take the family’s photos. Pictures of my dad with his Army buddies in basic training, my mom in bobby sox, their wedding album and more were nearly left behind. I threw the photos and negatives into a suitcase so that my parents could take them along with the rest of their things.

Fortunately, the evacuation only lasted about a day or so. Truckloads upon truckloads of dirt were brought in to build a hastily erected levee at the southern edge of the town which stemmed the tide of the flood. Only a few businesses and farmhouses outside of the temporary dike were lost.

We all consider photographs and the memories that they represent irreplaceable. When a natural disaster strikes they are often among the first things that we should decide to pack up to take with us. But sometimes events occur so rapidly and so unpredictably that there’s no time to take anything.

On March 11, 2011 a powerful 9.0 earthquake hit northern Japan. More devastating than the temblor was the resulting tsunami that reached heights of up to 129 feet and traveled inland up to 6 miles in some areas. Many residents had barely enough time to get out with their lives let alone with any belongings.

More than 15,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced. Raging waters wiped away their homes and belongings. Soon after the disaster, first responders (police, firefighters, self defense forces) participating in the rubble cleanup were ordered to save any photos that they found in the debris. Then the Japanese electronics company Ricoh almost immediately after the quake implemented its “Save the Memory” project. They set out to collect, clean, catalog and return as many of the found pictures that they could. It may seem a bit odd that a company that, in this country at least, is mostly known for its line of office copiers, but Ricoh also owns the camera company Pentax.

It was a monumental task to reunite hundreds of thousands of cherished memories with their owners. Ricoh set aside portions of several factories for the cleaning of the photographs. The pictures were first organized by where they were found. Ones that were found in albums were kept together as group. Volunteers then gently brushed any dirt on the pictures then washed them with water one at a time and hung them to air dry. The cleaned photos were individually scanned and digitized and given a reference number. They were then saved onto computers into categories such as “weddings,” “children,” etc. The prints were then sent back to the areas from which they were originally found.

Ricoh then set up “photo centers” in the various townships where people could browse computers containing a database of the pictures to search for pictures they had lost. Once found, the photos were retrieved using the previously assigned number. The company continued this for four years finally concluding the program this month.

In the end 418,721 photos were saved with 90,128 of them finding their way back to their owners. Although Ricoh spearheaded the efforts they worked in conjunction with several other companies, and local governments and countless volunteers. Together they found, cleaned and returned the missing photos and indeed “saved the memories” of the victims that might have otherwise been lost forever.

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