Rockaway Beach isn’t what it used to be since Hurricane Sandy sent seawater surging up New York’s coast.
Gone is the boardwalk – it was washed away in the flood. In its place are raised concession stands and wooden fences, with signs promising a rebuilt, fortified beach.
Instead of stairs leading beachgoers to the Atlantic’s choppy shores, visitors must strategically scale sand dunes reinforced with mesh walkways. The coastline, though no longer flooded, is barren. The community is still struggling to rebuild.
As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wraps up its shorefront protection program, the communities of the Rockaways have taken their own measures to protect against another storm as catastrophic as Sandy. While the engineer’s program has raised the beach to protect against smaller storms, worries remain that nothing can safeguard the peninsula against more massive tidal waves and storm surging.
With the two-year anniversary of Sandy approaching – at the normal height of hurricane season – only sand is left to protect these neighborhoods in the last month of hurricane season. Many of these beachfront residents want something more concrete – rock jetties under the sand that would help block tidal waves from pouring on to the streets.
The Army Corps of Engineers dumped 3.7 million cubic yards of sand to restore the land lost along the Rockaway shoreline, which spans 6.2 miles and nine neighborhoods, during the catastrophic flood. Rockaway was one of the hardest hit shorelines during Sandy.
The project, which cost nearly $38 million, was completed at the end of September. Now, a city-funded betterment program will plant dune grass, which will help keep the sand in place if another surge hits.
“A project like this is not just for Sandy – it protects [the community] during storms big and small during the year, 24/7,” said Chris Gardner, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers. “It creates a buffer between the communities and the shore.”
As the sea level rises, risks from severe storms and flooding are expected to rise, too. By 2050, sea levels could be 12 to 29 inches higher, according to Vision 2020, a comprehensive New York City waterfront plan released in 2011. By 2080, the water could be up to 55 inches higher.
Residents remained worried about another storm, and the dunes haven’t quelled their fears. Communities have started to protect the shore in their own ways, creating a haphazard barrier that changes with resident demographics.
“We know another storm is coming, either a year from now of 50 years from now,”said State Senator Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach). “These projects can’t happen fast enough. And it’s a question of funding. It’s a question of levels of government and red tape.”
The Rockaway Park section of the coastline, stretching from Beach 55th Street to Beach 142nd, is littered with sandbags that sit behind the dunes. The network of 7,000 geotextile bags stacks along nearly 100 blocks, each section 100 feet long and weighing 50 million pounds in total.
It was an interim fix for the middle-class neighborhood, and the bags were supposed to be covered by the dunes, though many remain uncovered, especially near Beach 116th and in front of the Flight 587 Park Memorial.
While blaming the city is a common trend, some peninsula residents have taken a proactive approach – one that changes the whole landscape of the beachfront. A few blocks down in Neponsit, the western end of Rockaway stretching from Beach 142nd Street to Beach 149th, residents of the wealthy neighborhood successfully pushed for a concrete wall, 4-feet deep into the sand, to stop storm surges like the ones that hit two years ago. The 22-foot steel pilings connect and reinforce the slabs to prevent sand migration.
“The beach is already eroding as we speak,” said John Cori, head of the civic organization Friends of Rockaway Beach. “You need something to keep the dunes in place.”
He added that if the $140-million wall were all that Neponsit was going to construct, they would have had to build five to 10 feet higher. The real solution, Cori said, is to build jetties.
But rock jetties aren’t cheap. Each one, which is simply a strip of boulders or a cement slab that stretches from the beach into the water, could cost up to $1 million. They’re likened to levies in New Orleans in their ability to protect from a hurricane by fighting sand erosion from ocean waves.
“If you look at a Google map prior to Sandy and post-Sandy, those beaches that had jetties, rock jetties, those beaches were protected,” Addabbo said. “We lost less sand on those beaches. My guess is eventually we get jetties, but I can’t say it will be in my lifetime.”
The dunes from the completed Engineer’s project reach nearly 14-feet high, a height and width the beach hasn’t seen in decades. Temporary fencing stands haphazardly as progress is made. Concrete skeletons of the destroyed boardwalk are stuck in the sand, supporting the banks of sand.
And while the dunes are designed to reduce risk by creating a barrier between the waves and the buildings that stand just inches from the edge of the beach, even Gardner admits almost nothing could stop another Sandy, which he stressed was a “freak” event.
“It’s a very vulnerable area geographically,” he said. “People are not going to be able to it outside and sip cocktails during a ludicrous event like Sandy was.”
In more blunt terms, Cori blamed the problem on a slow response by the city, and poor surveying on what the community needed most of all.
“If we were our own city, if we had gotten money directly, we would have put in the rock jetties,” Cori said. “Unfortunately we have to deal with the major bureaucracy of the City of New York from 26 miles away.”
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan, which he unveiled nearly eight months after the storm hit, was a far-reaching and extensive network of storm walls, levees and bulkheads along New York’s 520 miles of coast. Most of the projects haven’t made it past Bloomberg’s initial pitch, but the dunes have survived.
The initial plan called for $20 billion, with roughly half of the funds coming from federal and city money that had been already allocated.