In Teeth of Winter, Fixing a Broken Beach for Summer
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Barry Tiernan, left, and Nick Carbonara, parks department carpenters, this week on the Rockaway Beach boardwalk near Beach 84th Street.
By JIM DWYER
Published: February 7, 2013
One day last fall, Veronica M. White looked up and it was Thanksgiving. In a minute, it would be Christmas. Five minutes later, Memorial Day. Ms. White had just taken over as commissioner of parks and recreation for New York City when Hurricane Sandy struck. Suddenly, the summer of 2013 was galloping straight at her and the beaches of New York were broken. Take, for instance, Rockaway in Queens. Boardwalks washed away. Sand carried on wind and water to houses, yards and playgrounds. Public restrooms in ruins, concession stands buried, the lifeguard shack all but wrecked.
“May 24,” Ms. White said Thursday, which was Feb. 7. “That’s opening day, and the beaches will be open.”
Standing at the edge of the ocean in Rockaway, on the cusp of what was promised to be another giant storm, Ms. White pointed out how summertime was inching into place on the backs of hundreds of people. Carpenters set wooden two-by-fours into the herringboned ranks that make a boardwalk. A laborer swung a sledgehammer to drive a stake into the sand, a post for snow fencing that will, for the moment, be New York’s version of dune grass. Engineers were figuring out how to capture a lane of Shore Front Parkway and convert it into a walking path for the long stretches where the boardwalk cannot be immediately restored, so people with strollers and joggers and bikers will be able to move along the waterfront.
About 200 temporary workers were fetching debris from the beach. People’s stuff had ended up on the beach while the sand landed in their yards.
“There’s an army of people here,” Ms. White said.
The Rockaway Peninsula is, first of all, where thousands of people live, and many of them endured the kinds of intense, personal injuries that can only be inflicted on a home. The recuperation continues.
The Rockaways are also held in common as a physical public space and a shared chalice for drinking in summer: the squeals of kids curling their toes at the water’s edge; the ripples of young bodies in their prime; the softness of the breeze an hour before dusk on a hot day. A hundred thousand people might turn up there: our Hamptons — at the end of the A train, or the bus from Flatbush Avenue, or cars jammed with people and beach stuff. And it is why the work going on in the teeth of winter, an assembly of bolts, blueprints and determination, is a necessary miracle.
Along Shore Front Parkway at 88th Street, a few smallish heaps of sand had been staged at the land-side boundary of the beach.
“This is sand that came from the 59th Street playground,” said George Kroenert, a manager with the parks department who has overseen the reclamation of sand from the streets, its sifting in contraptions at Riis Park, and the resculpturing of the stripped beaches. So far, 155,000 cubic yards have been restored — or roughly what could be held in 300,000 city litter baskets; another million cubic yards will come from dredging navigation channels.
Mr. Kroenert gave his title as “construction program manager.” Ms. White corrected him: “Prince of the Rockaways.”
He has been overseeing the installation of a lace of snow fence to keep the sand in place. And stashed on Randalls Island are 50,000 Christmas trees, said Dorothy Lewandowski, the commissioner of parks in Queens. These probably will be used to create dunes, she said. Concrete beach walls that were blasted out in Belle Harbor and Neponsit will be replaced before Memorial Day, said Philip F. Sparacio, deputy chief of park operations in Queens.
A new kind of composite boardwalk fared well, but much of the wooden boardwalk was blown far from the beach. In areas, it simply buckled. These parts were being restored Thursday. “We chained the big pieces, dragged them with plows,” said Nick Carbonara, a carpenter. “Then we weave the planks back into place.”
Barry Tiernan, another carpenter, said: “We’re used to maintaining 100 blocks or so of boardwalk in the summer, and it can be 100 degrees here. So this isn’t too bad now.”
Asked if the entire boardwalk would be rebuilt, Ms. White said the decision awaited discussion with the community and a review of new flood maps.
“If it is rebuilt,” she said, “it won’t be with wood.”
As with so much of a city washed by rising oceans, no one can be certain how long the Rockaways will survive as a playground. But beyond any doubt, there will be another summer, Ms. White said.
“May 24,” she said for the fourth time, and each time sounding as if she meant it.